Bringing parts together

I used to have a section of this blog devoted to knitting. I am an avid knitter and always have multiple projects in process. Then someone suggested to me that I should focus just on professional material or maybe it was that I was feeling self-conscious. At any rate, I took down the knitting portion.

Then I remembered this quote from Marie Louise von Franz on knitting :

Everybody who has knitted or done weaving or embroidery knows what an agreeable effect this can have, for you can be quiet and lazy and also spin your own thoughts while working. You can relax and follow your fantasy and then get up and say you have done something! Also the work exercises patience…Only those who have done such work know of all the catastrophes which can happen — such as losing a row of stitches just when you are decreasing! It is a very self-educative activity and brings out feminine nature. It is immensely important for women to do such work and not give it up in the modern rush. (The Feminine in Fairy Tales, Spring Publications, 1972, p. 40)

She makes it clear to me that knitting, like painting or writing, has its place in this process of self-discovery that I am so much engaged in, for myself and with my patients.

Knitting, among other things, is one way I understand my work and my life. My office is at home, in the middle of my domestic life. I have a basket of yarn in my office — because I think it is beautiful. I also have there art supplies on the table I use when I attempt to paint.  I used to fantasize having a house that had a big kitchen with a fireplace and I would see my patients there, in front of the fire, sitting at the table and drinking tea. Because for me the kitchen is the place of transformation.  There are things in my professional life that I want to explore more deeply. But those things have grown out of ordinary life — aging, figuring out what it is to be a woman, working at my story, embodiment, dreams all of it.

When I was in my 20’s, in the heydays of second wave feminism, I always felt I had to hide my interest in things domestic. To acknowledge having a domestic life — cooking, knitting and the like — was all but a betrayal of what we women were striving for: to be taken seriously as thinkers and doers and not be relegated only to hearth and home. I don’t think my friends in graduate school then even knew I loved to cook or that I knitted and crocheted and sewed. And when I got married, it was a point of honor that I do half of the work around the house and not a bit more.

But that was then. And in the course of growing older and growing up more, I seem to have lost that need to split my life as I did. Maybe this is the gift of third wave feminism to women like me — that we can bring the parts of our lives together. And in mending the splits in our lives, perhaps we can move toward mending  splits in our husband’s and son’s lives as well.

As Jung says:

Individuation means becoming an “in-dividual,” and, in so far as “individuality” embraces our innermost, last and most incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming one’s own self. We could therefore translate individuation as “coming to selfhood” or “self-realization.” (C.G. Jung, CW 7, para. 266)

When we go into the woods

Into the woods

Starting therapy is a lot like going into the woods in fairy tales. We go together into territory that is both like and very different from ordinary daily life. But sometimes people are casually dismissive of therapy,  that it is just good listening and if friends could learn good listening skills, then therapy wouldn’t be necessary. Certainly listening empathically can and does provide catharsis and catharsis is an element of therapy. But it is only an element, not the whole thing.

When I enter a session with a patient I endeavor to do so without memory or desire — which is to say that any day as I meet with my  patient, I put away thoughts about this blog, about my husband’s latest project, about other patients, and about our last session with each other  and I prepare to meet her in the moment and without an agenda. I wait for her to begin and allow her to set the agenda for our time together. I follow the thread of her concerns and as I do so, bits and pieces of the other times we have met come to mind. I hear more of her themes and as we go along I am relating them to themes I have heard from others and what I know about such themes. I am aware of issues in her life that have led to her personality being structured as it is — this is a clinical piece where I touch into my database of experience with people who have similar histories and who have had the constellation of issues in their lives that she has has and what I know from more theoretical material as well.  I challenge a bit here, ask a question there, offer a suggestion, share a personal experience. I watch as we do our dance of of speaking and listening and I see when an interpretive arrow hits the mark and when it misses.

I am patient with hearing the same story told many times over the course of our work together and I listen for the subtle ways it changes as we explore the nooks and crannies of her life, how she begins to see herself in her life a bit differently and sees others a bit differently as well. The story in its basic outline remains the same but it changes as well in nuance and color and emphasis.

I bring to my work over 40 years of training and experience, many years of my own personal therapy, 10 or more years of supervision by masters in the field, and 70+ years of my life experience. I do not ask nor in any way expect my patients to reciprocate with me and listen to me and my issues. I have no agenda for what they should do. No subject is off-limits, including the full range of feelings they have about me.

What I do is well beyond empathic listening, though that is part of what I do. And while I agree that anyone benefits from being able to talk about feelings with an empathic listener, I do not think that listening alone is sufficient for dealing with a wide range of the things people bring into therapy. For some, it is about a corrective emotional experience, for others a chance to look at their lives with a person who is not entangled in that life and can be neutral, for still others it is where deep psychic wounds can be opened  so that they may heal. It is also a place where we can pay attention to dreams and symbols and archetypes and fantasies and discern the pattern of meaning in a life.

It is hard work. It is sacred work, I believe. 

What is the myth?

What is the myth?

It is often the case that at midlife and beyond  life calls us to look again at who we are, what we have done, what we believe in. This is prime time for discovering what is the story we have been living; as Jung put it — 

I asked myself, “What is the the myth you are living?” and found that I did not know. So…I took it upon myself to get to know “my” myth, an I regarded this as the task of tasks…I simply had to know what unconscious or preconscious myth was forming me.”

Human beings are narrative makers. We remember ourselves and our lives in stories — stories we tell our friends, family, strangers, ourselves. When a new patient comes to me, I say “tell me about yourself” and await the story of this person’s life and how it has brought her to me. And if we work together for some time, that story will change so that the story she tells at the end will be recognizable as hers but different in some ways from the tale told at the beginning.

“The universe is made of stories – not atoms” —   Muriel Rukeyser

So, we swim in a sea of stories — our own and those of the ones around us. And we shape our lives around the story we tell ourself is ours, the story that we live. Think of a person you no doubt know whose life could be summed up in the song title, “I would do anything for love” — can you begin to see the story he or she is living? And how might that person be able to change the course of the story, write a new chapter if only she knew it was what she is living?

“The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air. All I must do is find it….” Jules Renard 

Exploring personal myth is one way to discover the story. 

In the last 20 years or so, a number of books have been written on the subject of personal myth. Of the lot of them, 2 stand out for me as better than the rest:

James Pennebaker: Writing to Heal — Pennebaker, a social psychologist, has done considerable work examining the healing potential of writing. 

Sam Keen & Anne Valley Fox: Your Mythic Journey —  this book encourages the reader, through writing and reflection using question drawn from the work of Joseph Campbell, to uncover our story and explore its meaning.

I am never entirely happy with self-help books. In order to appeal to a large audience, in my view, they lose bite in favor of what is palatable and likely to engage masses of readers, rather the same way that the food from Taco Bell is suggestive of Mexican food but lacks the complexity and range of real Mexican food. So think of these books as a way to do personal myth, lite. Digging into one’s life, looking at Shadow as well as Persona, takes time. Plus all of us are at best reluctant to look into the corners and under the rocks where our darker or less acceptable aspects lurk. That said, these books offer a palatable way to begin to look at personal myth and may whet appetite for looking deeper.

Memory and Magritte

I first saw Magritte’s “La Memoir” or “Mnemosyne” on a book jacket 20 or more years ago. She is an arresting image, Memory with a wound to her head. Is it memory bleeding out? Will memory be lost if the wound is not bandaged and the blood flow stopped? Or does she show the wound to the head that any of us has from one or another childhood insult or injury? Does the effort to re-member heal the wound and thus stanch the bleeding? Save the memory? And what about the bell and the leaf — are they bits of memory? Has she forgotten? Did she ever know? Are we all surrounded by artifacts of memory that if we can only see them will allow memory to heal?

With Magritte’s Mnemosyne, we can consider the possibility that the blood is an image, a  memory, memory sticking the colorless face of the woman, the only sign of life we see of her.  As mother of the Muses, Mnemosyne would give birth to spontaneous impulses toward speech, song, art, dance, poetry, and other manifestations rendering the numinous visible and experiential — not just spoken of but enacted, enacted here in the splash of red on her head.

Think about a vivid dream you have had. When you write, it becomes something other than the dream. It becomes a text, an adaptation of the dream, but the dream, consisting of images, cannot be fully and accurately captured in words. The same with memory. The experience remembered is not a record, faithful in every detail. The memory is particular to the rememberer. Even in a family, the same event can and often is recalled differently by parents and children, even by siblings.

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.