Friday, September 24, 2010


I’m genetically predisposed to be a words person. My mother collected words that fascinated her by their sound or spelling or unusual length. She would repeat these words with reverence, carefully enunciating each syllable as if they were her personal mantra. Onomatopoeia, the formation of words by imitating their sound, like buzz; tintinnabulation, the ringing sound of bells; palindromes, words that are spelled the same or series of numbers that are the same whether you start from front or back, like mom and 103212301; anthropomorphize, the representation of objects as having human form or traits—the words would roll off her tongue and be absorbed by my hungry little ears.

She had an uncanny ability to tell you immediately how many syllables were in any word. It became a game to try and stump her—never happened. Elephantitis, we’d say; and she’d say five before we even finished the word. After she died, and my siblings and I were clearing out years of her life stored in boxes under her bed and crammed in closets, I came across several notebooks with pages of words that seemed unrelated except for this fascination she had with the words themselves.

One morning this week I awoke with the word anthropomorphize stuck in my head. You see a lot of this on television, especially in advertisements. Little squares of cereal dance about a child’s backpack excitedly celebrating the first day back at school; happy cows in California crack jokes about their bovine companions; crows cackle with mirth as a homeowner smacks into a sliding glass door that’s been cleaned to spotless transparency; M&Ms stand stubbornly on the shelf and refuse to jump in the snack bowl—the list goes on.

Not only do we ascribe traits to inanimate objects to sell products, but we use this tactic to teach morals. In my day, The Little Engine That Could taught me about fortitude, hanging in there (“I think I can; I think I can”), giving it your best and being greatly rewarded for your effort (“I thought I could; I thought I could”). There’s a character now called Sponge Bob Square Pants—I had to consult with my daughter about this one—a sponge that lives under the sea in a pineapple (?). He’s good natured, eager, and passionate about life. As do humans, he occasionally frustrates the heck out of his friends. Taking people as they are, perhaps developing tolerance and an appreciation for idiosyncrasies may (or may not) be the message in this cartoon. As you think back over your lifetime, I’m sure myriad examples come to mind.

What is this anthropomorphizing all about? Is it an extrapolation of Carl Jung’s writings on the animus mundi, or world mind? Is it a modern day example of the philosophy that we are all One, united in spirit? I have a feeling that a child in Africa, or China, or India would get a good chuckle at the antics of Snoopy or Woodstock, and would shed tears over Bambi losing his mother. Human traits we can relate to, ascribed to inanimate objects, brought forward by that wonderful word, allow us to connect in a greater community beyond the limitations of our daily lives. I guess that’s worth something.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hands-on Learning

I learn about writing music by sitting at the piano with a 12-stave notebook and a pencil. Then I take that raw form to my computer, open up my Finale music program, fine-tune the math so that the notes fit in the measures, and voi-la! Music.

I learn a lot about writing fiction from reading fiction. Recently I read in The Family Orchard by Nomi Eve, that the etiology of the word fiction comes from the Latin “fingere,” which means “to form.” I like the thought of giving form to the stuff in my head and calling it fiction. So much more literary than calling it chaos, anarchy, absurdity, or any number of other descriptive words for what floats around up there.

I learn about poetry mostly from listening to my poet friends read their word pictures aloud. For me, poetry is also a way of giving form to thought, working with words to create imagery and emotion. It’s more personal; in fiction, you can say almost anything and ascribe it to someone else. In poetry, there’s not much hiding from the fact that these are the poet’s sentiments.

I’m concerned about the ecology of our planet, more so now that I have grand-babies, and therefore a greater attachment to the future beyond where I step aside. The poem below gives form to some of my more bleak ponderings.

The Night the Stars Go Out

We have used up the world.
The ancestors frown from above.
Orion’s Belt drops from the southern sky
And sinks with a thud onto the western horizon.
The Big Dipper runs dry of its celestial stew
Like a ladle in an abandoned soup kitchen.
The ancestors frown from above.
The night the stars go out
A dim smear of rouge like a whore’s makeup
At the end of a long night
Replaces the red planet of Mars in the darkened sky, and
The night owl cries “Why?” “Why?”
The ancestors frown from above.
The night the stars go out
The Seven Sisters die a virginal death in mass suicide;
The Milky Way turns to sand and rains a dark desert.
Scorpio, like an Ouroboros, turns on itself and consumes stinger and all.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

From the Other Chair

I write a lot of stories that are motivated by my life and experience as a therapist. It’s an odd job. It occurs to me that unless you are a therapist, you might not know that. The work has an impact not only on the client, but on the therapist; there are dual relationship issues, lack of anonymity in a small town, secondary traumatization, something called compassion fatigue, as well as larger-than-life projections on who we are as people. The following is reprinted from an article I wrote for Psychology Today in February, 2003.

I live in a community where it is likely that several times a week I will cross paths with current or past clients from my psychotherapy practice. They show up at choir practice, the local organic grocery, next to me in line at the bank or the post office on a Saturday morning, often when I’m wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, my favorite mud-stained tennies, no make-up and my hair in errand-running disarray. Processing the client’s social discomfort of such meetings can take up space in therapy for two or three weeks. Processing my own discomfort focuses on not becoming hyper vigilant about leaving the house.

At the grocery I worry about a quart of Ben and Jerry’s and a cut of steak in my shopping cart offending a bulimic, vegetarian client in line behind me, or a chilled bottle of Sauvignon Blanc losing me credibility with a client in recovery who just got promoted from stock boy to cashier.

There are few guidelines for managing the ambiguities and oddities that occur within the therapeutic relationship.

Last winter, I joined the local women’s gym to offset the sedate lifestyle of daily therapy. I gave up my membership when I passed a towel-clad client on my way to the shower.

Back in my office, parades of psyches sit for the fifty-minute hour on the couch across from me.

They tell me things they wouldn’t tell another living soul: tales of humiliation, pain, psychic torture, irrational beliefs, fears, ruined hopes and dashed dreams. I remember the story of the sin eaters of ancient days, the nomads who would wander the countryside and absorb the pain of the villagers only to be chased away, taking with them the pain and sorrow, leaving the village purged.

There’s something sacred about the process of accompanying someone on their descent to the underworld of their soul-journey, holding the belief that they can return healed, and witnessing their struggles along the way. James Bugental, in The Art of the Psychotherapist, writes, “We are privileged, more than most, to peer into the well of life’s mystery.” Privileged—yes. And, there’s something burdensome about it as well.

In addition to the secondary traumatization of hearing hour upon hour of human misery, there are expectations that come with that intimate sharing.

Clients often expect that I will retain the details of their lives and hold them in this sacred space for years to come. My menopausal mind is greatly challenged by this expectation.

There’s a closeness and trust that forms in the confines of the therapy office. Because we’ve been through so much together, the assumption of friendship seems natural.

It is true that I attend to them and hold them in highest regard, as would a good friend. I believe in them and nurture the unfolding of their potential. I mirror for them the wonderful person they are underneath life’s circumstances. I share their highs and lows, and hold the knowledge that without a doubt, they have a place and a purpose in the universe. And, I remind them that they are unique and valuable, and no one else can be as good a them as they can.

What they don’t have to do in return, is listen to my problems. We can’t meet for tea, go to a movie or a walk on the beach to continue our conversation after the therapy hour. The container of our time together remains my little 8’ x 12’ office.

How do we as therapists show up, day after day, year after year, in intimate and authentic relationship to another where our needs are not addressed?

And how do we handle those growth experiences called negative transference, where emotionally charged verbal tirades at the unfaithful partner, the acting out child, the abusive parent, are hurled at us as though we’ve suddenly shape-shifted into the offending party right before their eyes?

Stress-related disorders, insomnia, anxiety, depression, addictions, and a variety of neuroses are common among therapists.

In consultation groups, small informal social gatherings of peers, and therapy groups for those in the helping professions, my colleagues and I share our stress reduction tricks.

I often use an imaginary shield (or psychic wet suit) that allows me to hear and feel with compassion, to be affected without being infected by psychically assaultive energy.

Having friends who understand, working with a good therapist, and developing your connection to Spirit helps. Give yourself plenty of creative and expressive outlets, read, and spend time alone. Create peer support, laugh, eat healthy food, and make your home a nurturing environment. Play, listen to music that moves you, exercise, and dare to dream. Most importantly, remember why you’ve chosen this particular path.

I marvel at what a strange profession this is. But, is there anything else I’d rather do? Absolutely not.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Been Busy

Autumn is in the air, the days are shorter by an increment, the sun slants with just a hint of summer gone by, and students mull about schoolyards during recess. Summer passed way too quickly for me—whether it’s my mindset or global warming, I can’t tell. My internal thermostat from growing up in the Midwest tells me that winter is just around the corner. Forty years in California has not yet re-calibrated my sensors. I can feel the pull to store food in my cupboards, pull out the flannel sheets, see if my winter clothes still fit. It’s eighty-five degrees outside today.

I am busy at work this month compiling three novellas into a collection, working title Best Laid Plans. That’s my excuse for not having a blog entry for you this week. I’ve also been working on two new songs—a bluesy piece about taking charge of your life, and a song for my twin grandsons about being an individual—and polishing another song, Sundowner, for performance in October at the Center For Spiritual Living in Santa Rosa.

Here is what I hope you can anticipate in the near future: Best Laid Plans: A Collection of Stories

The First Step: Jenny and Shalese, unlikely players on the stage of life, become victims of circumstance, pawns embroiled in a mission masterminded by an underground society of the wealthy and privileged led by Florence, a sociopath oldster. Shalese’s life dream begins to unravel as Mab, a three-hundred pound lesbian bartender by night, P.I. by day, uncovers the society’s sinister plot. (cozy mystery category)

Grapevine: A California Family Tree: follows the twists and turns of relationships between members of the Harding and Flynn families. May Harding clings with a death grip to her dream of a “normal” life as she is catapulted into a future she hadn’t imagined. May battles her internalized homophobia as well as an abusive, alcoholic husband, a run away teen age daughter, a gay son, and her best friend Etta who knows things about May that even May doesn’t know. (family saga category)

Sojourner: is love story with a reincarnation twist. Claire and Andrea, ahead of their time in Victorian England, are kept apart by Claire’s brutally controlling brother, and die of unrequited love. In alternating chapters, we fast forward to current day California where Calle and her lover Ande are compelled to complete the relationship that was begun centuries earlier. (timeless love story category)