Thinking About Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving Day. I come from a New England family, Mayflower descendants even so Thanksgiving was always sort of “our” holiday. After we moved back to the States from Japan, where my father was stationed during the Korean War, he was mistakenly sent to Ft. Knox, KY and we were there Thanksgiving the year I was 8. While he waited for new orders, my dad was put in charge of the mess halls for reasons known only to the Army. We were to eat there with the troops but I got the mumps and so we missed that. I remember my mother learned from the mess hall cooks to cook the turkey in a paper bag that year. Other than that year, all of the Thanksgivings of my childhood blend together. 

Not being a big turkey lover, I confess I found it hard to wholeheartedly embrace the feast. It seemed to me to be mostly about me doing a huge amount of cooking for a meal that lasted only a fraction of the time it took to prepare — and then came the clean up. And I have felt growing ambivalence about the myths surrounding Thanksgiving, the myths that make my people the heroes and good guys and the Native Americans at best ignorant savages. 

My town was among the first in Maine to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. And that movement has grown, not without pushback but slowly the change grows. It is time now to face the reality of Thanksgiving. 

The holiday arrives in the midst of a national struggle over racial justice, and a pandemic that has landed with particular force on marginalized communities of color. The crises have fueled an intense re-examination of the roots of persistent inequities in American life. NY Times

Against this background, I have been reflecting about how we do need a thanksgiving but one not so connected to our history of racial injustice.

Every day we are confronted with the horrible mounting death toll from this pandemic. As I write today, the toll is at 262,000 souls. And rising. It is unimaginable. I try to visualize the number — little lights all over the map going out one by one. In my small town, recently the woman who tended the garden in Post Office Square became one of those numbers. We all must live with the anxiety of knowing that this invisible force, this virus is everywhere in our lives. Many, hopefully most of us wear masks, avoid unnecessary trips outside of our homes, do whatever we can to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Many of us have forgone spending this holiday with family in order to avoid travel and the spread of infection. But millions have not heeded the warnings from public health officials. Still the death toll rises and likely there will be a spike around Christmas. To fully realize what is happening is to face into horror — so many people dead. So many people ill. A terrible toll exacted from doctors and nurses caring for the ill. 

It came to me the other day what we might do at the end of this, maybe a year from now if the effort to vaccinate everyone has succeeded and we enter a recovery period. When the crisis has ended, I feel we will need two events to mark what we have passed through: first a National Day of Mourning to publicly acknowledge our dead and our grief. And then a day of Thanksgiving that we survived, we passed through this terrible time. 

I am just one person living in a small town in Maine. I have no idea how to bring these events into existence. By writing this, by linking to it on FaceBook and Twitter, maybe enough of you will share my idea and maybe we can together actually make it happen. Feel free to share the link with anyone you believe might be interested. Please share your feelings and thoughts in the comments below.

Be Still My Heart

What was rumored a few weeks ago is becoming a reality — In Treatment Season 4! Uzo Aduba (Emmy® winner for “Mrs. America” and “Orange is the New Black”) will play the lead role of the therapist at the center of the season, Dr. Brooke Lawrence.

Back in 2008 when the series first ran and this site was new, I became a big fan and wrote about each episode as it ran. You can find these posts still by selecting In Treatment above and choosing the season you wish to read about. If you haven’t seen this series, I urge you to do so — it is available on DVD and if you subscribe to HBO Max, is available there. And of course, do read my posts and ask questions and comment — more discussion is welcome.

In my mind, this is the best dramatic presentation of therapy I have seen. Of course the therapy is compacted and made more dramatic for purposes of the drama. But still, it is faithful to the basics.

In sadder news, Daniel Menaker, who wrote my favorite novel about psychoanalysis (this is a genre, you ask??), died this week. His book,The Treatment, which was also made into a movie, is based on his own analysis. The book is funny and moving and well worth the read.

Home

Every twice in a while when I am a little bored, I sometimes watch an episode or two of the HGTV show “House Hunters”. It can be almost addictive, watching couples and families with their list of must haves in a new house — the house must have a kitchen with granite counters and stainless steel appliances. There must be a large “master suite” with an equally large master bathroom. And even the bathroom must have updated fixtures. Even more surprising was the amount of space these people felt they needed. Even couples without children and not planning to have any often wanted four or five bedrooms and 3000+ sq. ft. 

I am hoping to offer a workshop on What is Home? next spring, which has taken me back to a favorite book of mine House As a Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home,  by Claire Cooper Marcus. Growing up as I did as an Army kid, the houses I lived in were provided by the Army and we had little to no freedom of choice in the appearance or style of the houses. Due to my history of home, I like to think about houses and what they say about us.

So what does it mean that people want huge kitchens, designed not so much for cooking convenience, as many of these huge kitchens require many steps in order to prepare food simply because they are so large, but as exemplars of luxury and being up-to-date? I am not speaking here of really high end houses — most of what I saw were for middle to upper middle class people who would not have others preparing food or cleaning for them. And what is it that makes relatively new but white appliances not acceptable? What makes stainless steel so important? What does it mean? What are these people wanting their kitchens to show about them? Is it only about prosperity and success? And today as we see into the homes of many news people and pundits who often speak from their kitchens, I am impressed by the elegant and very large kitchens.

Now the whole concept of the huge master suite rather amuses me. I use my bedroom for sleep and related activities. It needs only to be large enough to comfortably accommodate the bed, a couple of bureaus and allow us room to move around a bit. My bedroom is 13′ x 14.5′ and it is plenty for us. But these master suites were often larger than some apartments I have lived in in the past. In a family with children, what does it mean to have so much space set apart for adults only? And why must it be so much larger than an ordinary bedroom?

I live with my husband in a 1000 sq. ft. house. It is plenty big enough for both of us; in fact we could easily and comfortably live in a smaller place. So I try to imagine what it would be like for us to be in 3000 or more sq. ft., just us and the three cats. What would that be about? 

In my town there is a shortage of affordable houses, or what is sometimes called “workforce housing”. Were the discussions not often acrimonious it might be amusing that for many people this term, “workforce housing” connotes subsidized housing for low income people. And in the discussions a deep suspicion and antipathy for renters leaks in, renters being almost lesser beings than home owners. What does this mean about our notions of “home”?

On the other end of the scale are “tiny houses”. The typical small or tiny house by definition is a home with square footage between 100 and 400 square feet. The house may be mounted on wheels and thus also be movable. Many look to this movement as a desire to downsize. And predictably there are shows on tiny houses too.

I have some ideas forming about these extremes in housing and what they mean about what home is today.. But I am interested in what you think. What does it mean that expectations are for so much or so little.

One of those days…

I had all kinds of ideas for what I wanted to write about today – more about therapy or maybe some thoughts I have about a workshop I am developing or maybe the way the flowers in the garden are hurling their beauty out for us to see before frost comes in a matter of weeks to make everything brown and gray again. But I can’t wrap my mind round those things today.

I am sad about RBG’s death.

Heartbroken about all the people who have died in this horrible pandemic — in my mind’s eye, I see them as tiny lights blinking out, one by one by one.

I am tired of the confinement of the pandemic, of the anxiety it arouses, knowing this invisible virus could bring the end to my life.

I missing able to touch people and be touched — and deeply grateful for the enduring and endearing presence of my husband. 

I feel the anxiety so many of us feel about the upcoming election. I eagerly await the arrival of my ballot so I can vote.

So what do I do on a day like this? 

Well, it is chilly here this morning, so we gave in and turned on the heat for the first time this season. It feels good.

I have loads of yarn. Knitting socks feels satisfying, the magic of a single thread, unbroken from toe to top, delights me. And everyone can always use socks.

My Kindle is full of books. Today I choose to read one in paper.Good books and good yarn and a mug of tea go a long way to soothing.

What do you do to soothe yourself, to care for yourself in these anxious times?

Misfit Produce, Lady Ragnell, Mr. Rogers and Me, Part 1

Today I am beginning a several post series looking at bodies, especially fat bodies, and psychotherapy.

You might very well ask what this image — used by the company, Misfit Market which describes itself “Misfits Market delivers ugly, but otherwise perfectly edible fruits and vegetables”. I have frequently seen this image online for several months now. It struck me that even fruits and vegetables are expected to conform to some standard of beauty in order to be acceptable, even though appearance has little or nothing to do with their actual nutritional value. And that sounds so very familiar.

Take a look at this from John Berger’s book, Ways of Seeing:

“A woman must continually watch herself.  She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.  Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….  

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

When we women don’t rise to the standard of beauty expected of us, we become as misfit people, not marketable nor desirable. And we must survey ourselves constantly to assure ourselves that we acceptable. And when we don’t measure up, when we fall outside that conventional range of attractiveness, then like the misfit produce, in a way we become freaks.

Irvin Yalom is much loved by many therapists. Yet in his book, Love’s Executioner, he too reveals an all too common view of fat women as akin to misfit produce.

“I have always been repelled by fat women. I find them disgusting: their absurd sidewise waddle, their absence of body contour‚ breasts, laps, buttocks, shoulders, jawlines, cheekbones, everything, everything I like to see in a woman, obscured in an avalanche of flesh. And I hate their clothes‚ the shapeless, baggy dresses or, worse, the stiff elephantine blue jeans with the barrel thighs. How dare they impose that body on the rest of us?”

To his credit, Yalom acknowledges that this is an instance of countertransference, and that is good. But in the many comments that refer to this essay, I have not seen anyone be critical of the attitude he expresses nor what effect it had on his patient. Because though he did not voice his feelings, they were there in the room and no doubt she felt them, especially as they aligned with what she and any of us who do not fall within the range deemed attractive experience every day.

What is this issue with the body about? Let’s look at the body as shadow.

Jung, in Collected Works,Vol. 18: The Symbolic Life wrote:

We do not like to look at the shadow-side of ourselves; therefore there are many people in civilized society who have lost their shadow altogether, have lost the third dimension, and with it they have usually lost the body. The body is a most doubtful friend because it produces things we do not like: there are too many things about the personification of this shadow of the ego. Sometimes it forms the skeleton in the cupboard, and everybody naturally wants to get rid of such a thing.”

Jung sees body as shadow, avoided because it inevitably brings into the room those aspects of life we most wish to avoid — death, aging, desire, greed, excess. Certainly the female body, and especially the fat female body carries this shadow and inevitably activates in both patient and therapist all of the anxieties attendant upon these shut off aspects of life.

One more look at this trap of attractiveness from a Jungian analyst, Polly Young-Eisendrath:

From the Pandora story we can see that identifying with this “power”[of beauty] is a double bind – you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you identify with the image of female beauty, you put yourself into the Pandora box: beautiful but empty. Increasingly as a woman ages, she finds that identification with a beautiful appearance is a losing game. She will lose the game through aging when she no longer looks like Pandora, a “maiden” – youthful, slender, lovely. To identify with a beautiful appearance and to pursue that power leads to depreciation of her other strengths and ultimately to depression about falling short of standards. To disidentify with the power of appearance (and “let herself go”) usually leads to feeling like an outsider, feelings of low self-confidence, and fears of failing to find a heterosexual partner or to be the object of a certain kind of male regard.”

Damned if we do and damned if we don’t, where do we go from here? That’s for the next in this series, where we will look at the story of Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnell. Look for it on Wednesday.

On My Shelves

 The NY Times Book Review has a regular feature called By the Book, a Q&A with an author. I have published a book, though the NY Times has yet to discover me and I do read a lot, so here is my take on their questions: 

What book is on your night stand now?

Truthfully I no longer keep books on my nightstand as I no longer read in bed. And as you can see, my bookshelves are anything but tidy. Still next to me and on my Kindle I have a pile of books waiting to be read or in varying stages of being read:

Sarah Perry The Essex Serpent

Matt Haig How to Stop Time

James Lee Burke A Private CathedralAbigail Saguy What’s Wrong With Fat

Michael Eigen Rage

Francis Weller The Wild Edge of Sorrow

Michel Pastoureau Blue: The History of a Color

What was the last truly great book you read?

I come back again and again to Barbara Stevens Sullivan’s The Mystery of Analytical Work: Weavings From Jung and Bion. There is so depth to this book. I wish I had people I could read and discuss it with.

Or When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams. I love this book and have given it or recommended it to many women.

What is your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?

I love memoir. I am endlessly interested in the stories people tell and write about their lives. 

I also love mysteries and thrillers. They are my popcorn reading.

Have you read any good books on philosophy lately?

No.

What were your favorite books as a child? Did you have a favorite character or hero?

I had a book about a man who sold balloons in the park. I don’t know the name but I can still see the illustrations. I also loved the book of fairy tales that my grandmother had and would read to me.

I had a book that had been my father’s when he was growing up — Cop: A Police Dog.I liked it more because it had been my dad’s than that I liked the book itself.

I read Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames. I used to go to the library and come home with armloads of books — everything from poetry to novels. I started reading biographies when I was around 10. The libraries on the Army posts where I lived didn’t limit what I could check out or how many books I could have at a time. So I read everything that looked like it might be interesting.

What books had the greatest influence on you when you were a student?

Man and His Symbols was published when I was in college and it made me a Jungian before I really even understood it.

What was the last book that made you cry?

What comes to mind first is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

And there were passages in Naming the Gods by Gary Astrachan that moved me deeply.

The last book that made you laugh?

I must be brain dead this morning because none comes to mind right now.

The last book that made you furious?

Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump. Everything about him makes me furious.

What’s the best love story you’ve ever read?

Like Water for Chocolate. 

Are there any psychotherapists that you think are also particularly good writers? What are your favorite books on psychotherapy?

There are indeed wonderful writers among psychotherapists. Barbara Stevens Sullivan is a favorite of mine. Michael Eigen. Christine Downing. Naomi Lowinski.

And if you could meet a character from literature, who would it be?

A friend of mine, Janice MacDonald, writes mysteries, terrific mysteries set in Edmonton, Alberta where she lives. And as it happens I am a character in one of her books, Hang Down Your Head. So I know one!

Who are your favorite writers of all time? 

Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, Jung, Freud

What are you planning to read next?

I have a Kindle app full of books to read. I just started How to Stop Time by Matt Haig.

Do I look okay?

These days all of my work is online, both via telephone and video. Whether with Zoom or Skype of FaceTime, not only do I see the person I am working with but also myself. It was disconcerting for me at first to see my own image while listening or talking with another. I realized that ordinary concern about looking okay is heightened this way.

 This heightened awareness of appearance called to mind John Berger’s book, Ways of Seeing, where he writes:  

“A woman must continually watch herself.  She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.  Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….  

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

I have realized that I rarely leave the house without asking my husband “Do I look all right?” though he never asks that question about himself. And when I do, I am still scrutinizing myself, still assuming I have to meet some external standard in order to be okay. Now I see it in myself every time I see that small image of my face on the screen.

How about you?

The Inward Gaze

“A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is. When I speak of writing, the image that comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or a literary tradition; it is the person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and, alone, turns inward. Amid his shadows, he builds a new world with words….To write is to transform that inward gaze into words, to study the worlds into which we pass when we retire into ourselves, and to do so with patience, obstinacy, and joy.” Orfan Pamuk 

I ran across this lovely quote about writing some time ago. While I write — here, in my journal, and in fits and starts on various pieces I hope someday to publish, I struggle to think of myself as a writer. A few years ago, an editor friend of mine told me that the difference between a writer and a person who writes is that the writer works on what she writes, revising and editing and struggling to find the right words to say what she sees or feels. A person who writes — well, that person just writes. For the longest time, I rarely wrote more than one draft of anything and the thought of revising came only when someone else told me I needed to do so. But I took those words of my friend seriously and began to think of what I write as worthy of more attention and energy from me. Of course, now I must learn when to stop and allow what I have to just be as it is, even though it is not exactly what I hoped. Baby steps.

Anyway, recently when I read that quote again, I thought of writing and my own journey as a writer, but I thought also of the process in analysis and therapy. Because it seems to me that he describes that process also. In analysis, the gaze also goes inward and the effort is to transform the images and feelings and memories into words which eventually transform experience and, by opening new possibilities, make change. And we do this work with “patience, obstinacy, and joy” — though the joy sometimes comes late to the experience.

Signs of hope

Yesterday our Governor, Janet Mills, announced the next stages of measures for dealing with COVID-19. While the usual number of people grumbled that restrictions remain in place, still she brought a ray of hope that eventually much of what was will return. Or will it?

 Many speak of returning to normal but the normal we once knew will not be ever again, if only because we now know what it is to live through a life-threatening pandemic, knowledge we cannot bury. And we do not know what the new normal will be because we will still be living under threat of new waves of illness from this virus. And what effect will having lived like this, with daily reminders of the death toll, seeing masks on the faces of friends and loved ones, knowing now that touching each other or our own face can be life threatening? We have all been and continue to be experiencing trauma on a mass scale. What will be the lingering effects of that trauma?

And what of school children missing a quarter of the school year with uncertainty still about how next year will run? In my own family, my granddaughter is a high school senior — all the hoopla attendant to the ending of that phase of school is missing. She is supposed to be off to college in the fall — how will it be open? So many questions and we adults cannot provide definite answers.

New words have entered the collective vocabulary — Zoom, zooming, social distancing among others. We visit even doctors and therapists like me via video conferencing. We wrestle with tired eyes from much more time in front of screens.  A friend and colleague of mine died(not from the virus but that was of course the first question) and a memorial for him was via Zoom.

I have seen among fellow therapists on social media speculation that the new normal may well not focus so much on sessions face to face in our offices, but will remain in significant part on various video platforms and telephone. Telemedicine is not going to go away, especially for people in rural areas.

And will we return to shaking hands or hugging or will we evolve some new way of embodied, yet touch-free greeting?

Certainly the last great pandemic of 1918-1919 left its mark and surely played a role in what became the roaring Twenties. What do you imagine will follow from this?

Please take good care of yourselves. Masks are far from a fashion statement but they help. And even as restrictions are lifted, be out and about with caution. We are a long way from being out of the woods. To help cope with anxiety and fears and other feelings, if you don’t already, start writing a journal. Write down your dreams — I will be talking more about dreams next time.

And please share your thoughts in the comments.

 

For this Sunday- Three Things To Remember

Here we are near the end of April. In Maine, snow is forecast for tonight into tomorrow. Spring snow is not rare here, but this year maybe more than any, it feels cruel. It feels as though spring with green and flowers and leaves on the trees is being withheld from us. So this morning I bring you this from Mary Oliver:

As long as you’re dancing,
you can break the rules.

Some times breaking the rules is just
extending the rules.

Sometimes there are no rules.

So find some music that makes you move, and dance.