Knitting and Memory

An excerpt from my book, The Fat Lady Sings.

I am a knitter. We knitters come in two basic types. The project knitter buys yarn and pattern for a specific project and knits that and only that until it is finished. Process knitters knit to knit. We love to look at, touch, and acquire yarn and usually have several projects going at the same time. The finished project is nice but it is the process, the knitting itself, that is engaging. Sometimes the project is never completed or it is unravelled and the yarn used again for something else. I love the feel of the yarn as it slides through my fingers as I knit. I stop frequently and pull the fabric into shape and touch it and look at it and enjoy the color and shape. Knitting a sock, knit from top to toe with a single thread which is never broken, I marvel at the genius of the first person who figured out how to “turn the heel” and change the sock from a simple tube into something which hugs the form and shape of the human foot. These days I knit a lot of lace, knit with fine thread on small needles with intentional holes, for lace without holes is not lace at all.

Some years ago I dreamed:

I am in my analyst’s office talking with him.  I am knitting as I talk. I’m making a large deep purple shawl, something to wrap myself in to keep me warm.  I see a hole, a place where I made a mistake and I know I will have to take out several inches of work to get to it and fix the error, that a short cut won’t work.  He says this work is like that.

In the dream, I am working with beautiful deep purple yarn. The yarn is deep rich purple, my favorite color. Purple – the color of the vestments of Lent, a color of mourning. Purple, “the red of passion balanced by the blue of reason, or the real by the ideal, or love by wisdom, or earth by heaven, or, psychologically, the union of opposing energies within an individual.”(The Book of Symbols, p.694) The color of royalty. The color of an ancient dye made by the Phoenicians from the sea snail. The color of grapes and lavender and wisteria and iris and violets. Purple is the color of the Crown chakra. “…the highest and most sacred values are represented by purple.”((The Book of Symbols, p.694

I had a large quantity of this very yarn for some time, a soft and elegant yarn 100% cashmere, almost unimaginably soft to the touch. Lustrous and rich in feel and color. I had the yarn but couldn’t find the right pattern, couldn’t find what it wanted to be. I would look at it on the shelf with my cones of beautiful yarns and try to feel, to imagine what it should become.  Then I had the dream, a dream about the purple yarn, analysis and my efforts to create something I can wrap myself in, something warm and soft. In the dream, I pause in my knitting to look at the fabric and see, several inches below where I am working, a hole, not a hole belonging to the pattern but a large hole, a hole which distorts the lace. 

I am not a perfectionist with my knitting. When I find an error, I don’t often rip out work I’ve done. I try to find some relatively easy way to fix it, to cover the error so no one will notice. But this hole in the shawl I am making from this yarn is one I cannot ignore or overlook. The knitter’s adage that if a mistake can’t be spotted by a man galloping by on horseback, then it needn’t be repaired just doesn’t apply for this hole. In the dream, I know I will have to rip out several inches of knitting. Many lace knitters use safety lines, a contrasting yarn threaded through the stitches every few inches making ripping back easier. They rip back to the safety line and needn’t fear losing stitches because they will be held by the line. I work without such a line. When I rip back, I must move slowly, stitch by stitch, paying as much, even more attention to the unknitting as I do to the knitting. Slow and painstaking work,

Some time after the dream, a designer who created wonderfully intricate patterns which usually feature a lot of beads, announced a new design, one she called “In Dreams”. And it was to be done in a mystery knit-along, with sections of the pattern made available every two weeks over a span of three months. As soon as I learned of it, I knew this was the project for this yarn. I had no picture to tell me what the final shawl would look like, only that it would be a semi-circle and have many beads. I had to be willing to knit each part as it became available and trust that the finished design would be pleasing to me and would suit my purposes. 

I began. I completed the first section. But the beads were wrong, too large and not the color I wanted. So, I ripped it out and began again. This time a significant error appeared right near the beginning. Ripped it out again. Finally I completed the first clue and began the second. The work goes along without incident until near the end of the clue, when I discover an error. I have to slowly and tediously take out several rows, nearly an inch of work. I must pay careful attention as I come to each beaded stitch lest I lose the beads, and there are nearly 100 of them, tiny beads, in each row in this section. I fix the error and then discover I have made it again, in the same place. Three times I have to unknit that inch of work, three times I have to work not to lose a bead or drop a stitch. Finally, on the fourth attempt I succeed in completing the pattern section. There are five more sections yet to come. And then another large error. I have to rip it out again. This is not smooth going.

I used to knit sweaters, for me, for my children, for my husband. And afghans. Then for a long time I mostly knit socks. These days I am drawn to knitting lace, the more intricate the design, the larger the stole or shawl, the better. What does it mean that I want only to knit designs with deliberate holes in them? Donald Kalsched tells us, “Memory has holes.” In my dream I am knitting a lace shawl as I do in waking life after the dream. In the midst of the intentional holes which shape the pattern of the lace appears a misplaced hole, a mistaken hole. Memory has holes, holes which both shape the pattern and disrupt it, as in my dream.

The word “memory” comes to us from the middle English/Anglo-French word memorie, and from the Latin memoria, derived from memor, which means “mindful.” It comes from an Indo-European root smer– — which in one form refers to grease and fat. How is memory connected to ‘fat’? Think about how difficult it is to get rid of fat. Russell Lockhart writes,  “It sticks. It adheres. It won’t leave. It leaves traces. A memory is what sticks, what adheres in the mind. Memory is the fat of the mind.”(Lockhart,Word as Eggs, p.188)  Related words that share the history of memory include remember, commemorate, memorable, memento, and memorandum. The word mourn also shares its derivations. The same root that gave rise to memory gives rise to mourn. Lockhart continues: “When someone has passed away or slipped away, we mourn. When we are in mourning, we are deeply engaged with the memory of that person. Our mind is full of memories. We can only mourn through memory and with memory. We mourn for what we had and can now have only in memory.” Memory, mourning and fat.

I pick up what I have been knitting and it contains memory. I see what the day was when last I knit on this piece. My hairs get knitted into the fabric as do my cats’ hairs. The daydreams dreamed, the worries worried, the interior dialogues are all there, part of the fabric that I knit. Each piece carries my life knit into it, its fabric also the fabric of my memory. I am knitting lace. I am doing analysis. There I am working on knitting the lace of my life, repairing holes that don’t belong, trying to work out the pattern.

Note: I intended to include a photo of the finished purple shawl. Alas, when I dug it out, I discovered it had been heavily damaged by moths so that it is now filled with many many unwanted holes. All that remains to show its complexity is this shot of one part of the design.

Slow Magic

“Exchanging words is the essence of psychotherapy.” Nor Hall

I met with someone new the other day. When I meet with a new patient, I always have a slight anxiety before this new person arrives — anxiety and also anticipation Will we “click”? What new doors will open through this person and our work — because this process changes both of us, though not to the same degree. So there is that tingle of the new and unknown as I answer the door. And then, once in my office, whether in person or on the screen via Skype or FaceTime, we sit down and I ask, as I always do, “What brings you here today?” and we begin.

It is a curious process, therapy is. I have no visible tools. No questionnaires. No workbooks. No pills or potions. I bring with me 40+ years of sitting and listening in the same way plus my own life experience and a lot of reading. The journey is never the same with any two people. Which is why I never get tired of it, never weary of starting again with “What brings you here today”.

When psychotherapy works, it is not magic. For me, the experience of seeing therapy work is like a miracle. I go about my business, and I know how to attend to my work. I observe. I listen. I take in. I accept the person as he or she chooses to present in my office, with as little or as much as they disclose. I attempt to the best of my ability to bracket my own issues and unfinished business, my own insecurities, trusting myself to the moment and the occasion of our meeting.

Then, I describe what I am observing and experiencing in the presence of this unique person who has come for help. It is to me a signal of transcendence that that simple process can change things.

Freud wrote,

“Nothing takes place between them except that they talk to each other. The analyst makes use of no instruments— not even for examining the patient—nor does he prescribe any medicines. If it is at all possible, he even leaves the patient in his environment and in his usual mode of life during the treatment…The analyst agrees upon a fixed regular hour with the patient, gets him to talk, listens to him, talks to him in his turn and gets him to listen… It is as though he were thinking: ‘Nothing more than that?… ‘So it is a kind of magic,’ he comments: ‘you talk,and blow away his ailments.’ Quite true. It would be magic if it worked rather quicker. An essential attribute of a magician is speed—one might say suddenness—of success. But analytic treatments take months and even years: magic that is so slow loses its miraculous character.”

Mistakes

“People do not grow in sterile containers with perfect analysts; they grow in messy human relationships with analysts who try their best to do right by their patients  but whose best must frequently consist of reparative efforts vis-á-vis the difficulties they have created.”

How do we recover from the mistakes that we make? We recover by recognizing that of course we make mistakes because we are human and it is how we learn. I have been in this work for 40 years and I still make mistakes — different ones, but mistakes nonetheless. 

 When things go awry because of something I say or do, initially I need to be able to simply accept that I made a mistake, be willing to own that mistake. Optimally the relationship is solid enough that my mistake does not end it and we have the opportunity to work through it, to look at what happened and why and how it came to be experienced painfully. 

Sometimes the therapist’s mistake breaks the relationship. What do we do then? Well, we have to sit with it, reflect on what happened to see what we can learn from it. Maybe got some supervision to see if looking at the situation with another pair of eyes illuminates it for us. We learn what we can from it and let the patient go. Pursuing trying to get her to hear the explanation starts to be its own problem.  

A wise supervisor once told me that we fail our patients in exactly the way they need to be failed and the trick is to be able to work through that. And he was right. Years ago I had a new patient come to me after having fired two previous therapists — one who fell asleep in a session with him and another he found unsympathetic. So I knew I started on thin ice, that he was looking for me to fail him also. One day he called and left me a message that he had to reschedule. I called back and left a message saying only my name and a time he could reach me. He got furious and said I had violated confidentiality by leaving the message so his roommate could hear. Now I knew I had left no indicator of who I was or why I was calling, but it didn’t matter because *for him* I failed. No amount of reasoning mattered. So we failed to work it through. I did learn to check with new patients about whether or not it was all right to leave a message if I had to get in touch by phone. And these days with the ubiquity of mobile phones, the chances that a message I might leave will be heard by someone other than the intended recipient is pretty small.

Sometimes with the best intentions, like Humpty Dumpty, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put the therapy back again.

It is hard to let go but what I want for a patient may not be what is best for her in her eyes — and those are the eyes that count. If she came back, I would be able to feel good, vindicated in some way — and sometimes patients do come back– but at the time, I have to live with the blow to my pride and my sense of my professional self. It is in these humbling experiences where we learn most. 

In the Third Act

Almost 12 years ago I taught a course I called Conversations in the Third Act at the local branch of the University of Maine’s life-long learning center. If life is a drama in three acts, then all of us over 50 are in the third act and dealing with a whole new set of issues, questions, and challenges.

In the secret hour of life’s midday the parabola is reversed, death is born. The second half of life does not signify ascent, unfolding, increase, exuberance, but death, since the end is its goal. The negation of life’s fulfillment is synonymous with the refusal to accept its ending. Both mean not wanting to live, and not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die. Waxing and Waning make one curve. ~ C.G. Jung

Coming to terms with the loss of youth and the dawning realization that life is finite is intrinsic to later life. Much has been written about the passage into midlife and we have no doubt all heard of the Mid-Life Crisis. One person may experience the fear of losing control and the sense of self that once worked. Another may feel the fear of further losing areas of self-expression. Frequently, there is the existential fear of mortality and diminishing time, the realization that half of life is gone. And for those of us in our 60s and 70s and beyond, an even deeper recognition of the finiteness of our lives.

It is common  to experience anger or depression in response to lost time and opportunity for more authentic experience. Depression and underlying regret may reflect an emerging sense of emptiness and the superficial relationship to life of the “adapted self.”

These are calls to attend to life issues which have been neglected. As Jung said,

We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning,
for what was great in the morning will be little at evening,
and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.

In drama the first act is used to establish the dramatic situation and introduce the main characters. At the end of the first act, an inciting incident complicates the story and moves the screenplay into the second act. — This is childhood through young adulthood, when we set the stage for our lives, choose our work and relationships.

The second act, commonly described as “rising action”, typically depicts the protagonist attempting to solve the problems caused by the inciting incident. The Climax, which ends the second act, is the scene or sequence in which the main tension and dramatic questions of the story are brought to their most intense point. —  This is the time from 35 or so to the 50s even 60, what has classically been known as midlife. At the end of this act, there is a dawning awareness of the end, even though it does not seem imminent.

Finally, the third act features the resolution of the story and its subplots. It is the third act that I have become most interested in, the time I myself now inhabit, This is the time in which life’s loose ends, unresolved plotlines, that is the denouement of life.

I know that I am younger at 72 than my mother was. Already at my age, she was old and seemed to have moved into just waiting for the end. Women become invisible around age 40 when we are seen as faded flowers, no longer attracting the eye of young men. That fading is even greater as we enter this last act of life. We are scarcely seen in movies or on television, in magazines or popular culture. In the last election, Hillary Clinton, younger than Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump or Joe Biden, was sometimes subject to open speculation about whether her age made her a bad choice for President. Men can be elder statesmen in the 70s; women of that age, no matter their accomplishments, are expected to disappear.

But this is a time of great possibilities as well. Look at me — I published my first book just 2 years ago . If you have HBO, watch Grace and Frankie — women in their 70s who are filled with ideas for new things to do, new businesses to launch while their husbands believe they must surrender to age and retire. 

There is work to be done in this act. It is our last opportunity to make revisions to this story we living, the last chance to reconcile holes in the plot and to move the story forward to its inevitable end.

No Going Back

No, no, there is no going back.

Less and less you are

that possibility you were.

More and more you have become

those lives and deaths

that have belonged to you.

You have become a sort of grave

containing much that was

and is no more in time, beloved

then, now, and always.

And so you have become a sort of tree

standing over the grave.

Now more than ever you can be

generous toward each day

that comes, young, to disappear

forever, and yet remain

unaging in the mind.

Every day you have less reason

not to give yourself away.

 ~ Wendell Berry ~

Personal Myth

I suspected that myth had a meaning which I was sure to miss if I lived outside it in the haze of my own speculations. I was driven to ask myself in all seriousness: “What is the myth you are living?” I found no answer to this question, and had to admit that I was not living with a myth, or even in a myth, but rather in an uncertain cloud of theoretical possibilities which I was beginning to regard with increasing distrust. I did not know that I was living a myth, and even if I had known it, I would not have known what sort of myth was ordering my life without my knowledge. So, in the most natural way, I took it upon myself to get to know “my” myth, and I regarded this as the task of tasks…”  C.G. Jung

 

I return to this subject over and over again, in my personal life and with the people I work with. Your personal myth is the story you have for making sense and meaning of the world. It is the story you are living. Keep in mind that myth is our story about our experiences as a human. It is not something that is false or unreal. Discovering and exploring  the myth you have been living opens the door for editing and changing the story. And in changing the story, you change your life.

Your personal myth might develop from myths you have read and heard — stories of Greek or Roman gods. Or it could be that you find your myth in fairy tales.  Or try writing your own fairy tale — begin with Once upon a time…

Years ago when I was early in my own analysis, I began to write a fairy tale. It was a new experience for me, though I had long kept a journal. I sat down one evening and began to write , starting of course with “Once upon a time in a far away land…”.  I didn’t have a preconceived idea about the story or where it would. I simply let it write itself and when the words stopped coming, I stopped. It was nowhere near finished after that first bit of writing and I didn’t pick it up again until the urge to write more came to me. The process continued like this — write until I had no more to write, stop and out it away, start again whenever the urge stuck again — for seven years. I was tickled by the length of time it took to complete the fairy tale because somehow 7 years felt like it belonged to the realm of such stories. In the years since then I have revisited the fairy tale, made minor revisions, reflected on it. Just this past week I have been with it again, this time contemplating a major revision. 

Here are some ways to get started writing your own myth:

1. Take the lyrics to a song you like — change them  and add lyrics that tell the story of your life’s journey. For example, consider the song “I Would Do Anything For Love” — could that be your story? How would you change the song?

2. Think of a favorite children’s story and put yourself into that story.

As your write, consider what is the story your are writing? How does it end? Is there a spell cast over you? How do you break it? And what do you feel as you write?

The Return of Yellow

In 1968, right after I graduated from college, I was maid of honor in my best friend’s wedding. I had a really pretty yellow dress for the rehearsal dinner (the less said the better about the dresses we attendants wore for the wedding). Then yellow disappeared. I cannot recall anything yellow I wore for 51 years after that event. The reason? None really though when I “had my colors done” sometime in the late 80s the woman told me I was a winter and that yellow was one of the colors that was not good on me. Or maybe I was afraid it would make me stand out too much – there is nothing subtle about bright yellow. Anyway a month or so ago I saw a bright yellow blouse and fell in love with it, the very blouse you see me wearing there on the right.

It has been as if yellow has returned from exile somewhere, from the Underworld maybe. I have had a big dream about daffodils. In contemplating something I want to knit, yellow was the only color that caught my eye. Looking at the DyeForYarn Etsy shop where I love to find yarn, this skein jumped into my basket and is on its way from Germany to me now –

Yellow of course is a color of spring and of egg yolks, both indicative of new life. Dandelions

There is another aspect of yellow — aging. Think about the yellowing of paper and linen as they age. And another — the yellow we attach to cowardice. Remember the song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”? Yellow journalism. And there are many other associations one can make to yellow — like the short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilpin, which if you haven’t read, do follow the link where you will find a full text of the story. There are at least 2 film versions of it also.

I am more a writer and knitter than a painter, but even there yellow has stormed in and is demanding time from me. So off I go to sit at my painting table and see what yellow wants to say to me. I suspect it is about Persephone who in getting lost in the yellow of daffodils was abducted by Hades to the  Underworld.

Doors

“The doors to the self are few but precious. If you have a deep scar, that is a door, if you have an old story, that is a door. If you love the sky and the water so much you almost cannot bear it, that is a door. If you yearn for a deeper life, a full life, a sane life, that is a door.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estés 

Are You Ready for a Journey?


“I thought I found an answer when I was older, meditation, yoga, channeling. A way of making use of a talent, a gift. And now it’s back worse than ever. No, not worse than ever, but it feels like that because I’ve been OK so long. It’s like unfinished business has come back to haunt me.” 

 “The gate that opens and closes can’t close.”

“Two years ago I began medication and it helped, not completely, but relief. Then the sleeplessness started and my doctor suggested I speak with you.” 

 “Are you ready for a therapy journey?” 

              Michael Eigen, Under the Totem: In Search of a Path.


 

So writes Eigen of his beginning work with a patient he calls Rose.

Are you ready for a therapy journey? I want to remember this question, hold it in mind for the next time I begin with someone new. Describing therapy as a journey isn’t unique to Eigen, but I don’t think we say it out loud all that often and not at the beginning.

People come to therapy looking for answers, for solutions to problems in their lives. In an era of “evidence based” medicine, they expect there to be some formula, some evidence based set of things they can do to make themselves feel better. They want assignments, suggestions, techniques — mindfulness, journal writing, drawing all of which are useful tools but do not carry magic. 

It is hard not to respond to this desire for a solution, a fix. Hard not to make suggestions, not to offer something to soothe the longing expressed for relief, for a partner, for happiness. We become therapists at least in part out of a desire to help.

But that kind of therapy is not what Eigen means when he asks his question. The therapy journey is a journey inward, with no predefined end point and often goes into unexpected territory. And on this journey, the therapist is more likely to ask questions than provide answers.

Are you ready for a therapy journey?

Sunday Brain Dump

This morning for the first in what feels like weeks I woke up to sun and blue sky instead of rain or threat of rain. It’s Sunday — no work today except the minor chores around the house. My husband has designs on finally being able to rake the winter debris from the front garden so we can maybe sow seed for summer’s flowers soon. 

I think about picking up one of the half dozen or so books I am slowly working my way through. And I hear that voice inside that says “It’s a nice day. You should go outside.” And maybe I will later but right now I don’t want to. I even feel a bit defiant saying that to myself.

There are just a couple of days left in the blog challenge that has pulled me to write much more frequently. I have some ambivalence about this kind of challenge because of the way the challenge can take over and make posting about it and not so focused on content. If I do another, I want to stay focused on the writing rather than the challenge.

I am sort of simmering a couple of ideas about short workshops I want to offer. The Maine Jung Center is looking for proposals and I like doing workshops so… Maybe something about the meaning of Home? 

I am tickled that the Korean boy-band BTS has a new album inspired by Murray Stein’s book, Map of the Soul. Stein is a prominent Jungian analyst. The album, Persona, has made Stein and Jung popular among Korean teens. And I just read that their album is #1 in the US right now!

Time is on my mind

My daughter texted me today to ask me when she had her measles vaccination. She will be 43 this year so it was a long  time ago. Except that in old age, distant events sometimes feel more recent than last year. A trick of time and memory that lends a vividness to long ago. 

I dream about a little boy and in associating to it in an effort to reveal and understand what my psyche is telling me about my life today, I have a very vivid memory of walking with my son when he was 3. I can feel his hand in mine as we walk along the street and I can almost hear his stream of commentary about things  he sees. Yet that day was forty years ago. 

In another dream I see my grandmother’s kitchen, a room I have not seen in more than sixty years.

How can it be almost 20 years since that Fourth of July weekend when I flew to Detroit to meet the man I am now married to? A vivid image of the fireworks I could see from the window of the plane as I flew back to Maine and feeling they were for me, celebrating what I felt after that wonderful weekend.

Another dream: Pauline sends me a suitcase with gifts for me and another person important to us. Sent from beyond perhaps as she is dead.

People long dead. Places I have not seen in decades. My little boy with a little girl of his own now. My daughter who posts pictures of dinner parties she throws. 

I am almost 73 now. I look in the mirror and see an old woman. My dreams bring me myself as a girl. A young mother. And I am aware of the reality that the time left to me is steadily shrinking. Even as it stretches backward, I feel time speeding by rapidly.

It is spring. The lilacs have nubbins of greenleavesnow. The maples have swelling buds. Tulips and daffodils up in the garden. My town has a project to plant a million daffodils all over town, 100,000 per year. Nine more years to go. I wonder if I will be here to see them all.

Take a look if you will at the post, Dream Time, by my Twitter friend, Martha Crawford. You will be glad you did.