Searching for Closure: the Challenge of Loose Ends

Closure is a “sometimes thing,” to use an expression from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

Most of us want our uncomfortable emotions gathered and tied, but knots on the human package tend to loosen. Feelings leak out because they are squirmy, slippery parts of every life. Endings find a way not to end whenever they discover a quiet, tender crack through which to wiggle.

Breakups and losses happen to everyone. Usually, one party wants the book to close more than the other.

The latter experiences greater relief than grief. The other carries the heavier burden of pain and seeks an escape or another chance.

Perhaps he enlists distraction, alcohol, drugs, and medication, to no avail. Sometimes therapy, rebound romance, and faith also fail to heal wounds. What then?

Some wait and hope. They want to unend the end, begin the friendship or love anew, hoping the guy or girl realizes the loss. The seeker — the one with more anguish — searches for renewal, not dissolution.

Maybe he hopes his distant dad will finally say, “I love you, and I’m proud of you.For years he pretended the old man’s opinion didn’t matter.

Then the father dies, and the not-so-sunny boy learns the ache didn’t get buried with the man. He relives the pain over conversations remembered or never achieved.

At least, this survivor can grieve to the level of acceptance. Papa shall not come back, so all the solutions belong to the younger man. His situation can be both harder and more straightforward when his late father resides in “a world elsewhere.”

If a friend or lover is a call or email away, the possibility of a reunion may continue no matter the odds.

The long-standing therapeutic approach to bereavement involves expressing feelings — love, hate, sadness, emptiness — all of it. Over time, these should quiet themselves.

Standard techniques to advance the process include writing farewell letters one never sends, “speaking” to the deceased at an actual or ad hoc gravesite, role-playing a conversation with the one you cared about, or burying a note as a symbolic departure.

All these try to turn the abstraction of loss into a material or ritualized object, something you can see, hear or enact.

Some people, however, sustain their preoccupation with the other. Without intent, they train their minds to return to her repeatedly. They watch videos of her, listen to recordings of her voice, read her texts and emails, view photos of the loved one.

Friends, too, do this, not just people with romantic attachments. They remain absorbed in thoughts of estranged companions, replaying the events leading to the rift, analyzing and reanalyzing the why of it all.

Wondering whether there is a way to mend the bond continues the one-sided relationship. If these expenditures of time don’t end, the person engaged in them becomes an enemy of his own healing. His hope prevents a final goodbye and a step that might offer something more attainable.

Some romances can be rekindled, others transformed into friendships, and buddies return for various reasons. When those efforts work, here are some contributing factors:

  • Both individuals remember the best times and still yearn for reattachment, though at least one hasn’t said so.
  • One of the former partners hasn’t made an effort because of fear of rejection or anger.
  • Both members of the couple have changed in the ways necessary to create a more lasting bond.
  • One of the pair has reflected on the mistakes he made. He would welcome the chance to apologize if the other would listen. This could permit as much closure as the singleton requires. If the other reciprocates, an avenue to a fresh beginning may open.
  • The two souls feel incomplete without the other half.
  • No other relationships or responsibilities, especially with a spouse, would be compromised by taking up the old connection.
  • Life events or thoughtful changes have not caused one to recognize the need to maintain distance.

Reconnection can be wonderful if the two once again experience joy. When the attempt fails, it may at least remove hope and set dreams of recommitment aside. The “final” unhappiness might be a necessary step toward letting go. From the bottom, one can only rise.

When I continued to practice, patients sometimes asked what they could do to reclaim a failing or terminated relationship. No single answer works for all, and the counselor who dares to offer a confident prognostication walks unsteady ground. Even so, when my clients reported a long period of unanswered calls, texts, and emails, the unstated message was clear.

This time of year — dark days, pandemic, political and media-fueled rage, heightened anxiety, and more — increases our desire to embrace those we’ve loved and still love. Moreover, reaching out in the holidays might reduce the chance of a rude reply.

Still, not everything in life can be put right. More frequently than you might think, neither person in the split is wrong. Instead, their interests no longer coincide. It can even happen that two hearts are together in their breaking.

Before any new attempt to reattach, ask yourself whether the other is essential to you, recognizing most of us are not. Reflect on past losses, recalling your hard-won buoyancy and resilience.

A recent conversation with a close friend illustrates how hard letting go can be. She wondered …

Does “acceptance” require giving up asking “why”?

GS: I need to know a bit more to understand what you are looking for.

Your response gets to the heart of my question. I am questioning going down the rabbit hole of gathering more and more information. Is it intellectually crippling to turn away from that effort?

GS: Knowing why is not always possible. Neither is turning away easy. Life always has loose ends ...

My friend asked her daughter-in-law the same question. Here was her answer:

I don’t think that it’s human to stop asking questions. Acceptance to me is more about being at peace with whatever answers we get. Acceptance is also being OK with not knowing, with not getting answers.

A wise young woman.

Here’s to a New Year full of wisdom and kindness, enough to repair a world of broken hearts.

======

The top painting is Mt. Fuji from Kishio by Kawase Hasui, 1937, from History Daily. Next in line is the Narrows, Zion National Park, December 2020 by Laura Hedien. Blaue Kegelberg by Gabriele Munter follows, then Tragedy by Franz Kline, 1961. Finally, just below is Northern Lights at the Arctic Circle by Laura Hedien. As with the first photograph, these come with her kind permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

Plans Before Sunset: A Woman Who Says “Yes” to Life

I once met a famous man who said, “We are all in transit.” Just passing through. Best, then, to talk with someone who willingly provided her perspective on the lengthy journey.

As she approaches her 10th decade, this lovely individual offered more than her share of wise guidance just by describing her plans. They do need revision on occasion, don’t they?

Before you hear her voice, let me give you some background.

Catherine Pearlson (CP) was born to the generational expectation of taking your male spouse’s name when married. These days we might perceive it as an automatic first step toward removing one’s identity. Men in the business world trimmed off some more of her selfhood, despite her degree from one of the finest universities in the world. Remember, she lived in the real-life version of TV’s Mad Men moment.

Her dad died early, but CP benefited from a kind stepfather and a sparkling presence, as well as three qualities in equally short supply: resilience, boldness, and wit. She persisted and persists.

Losing friends and loved ones infiltrates any long life, but Ms. P. continued to say yes to the crazy journey each of us encounters, no matter how much time it took to reclaim herself. Her will and self-affirmation survive, despite more than one serious illness from which she rebounded.

Catherine has known the death of one spouse and divorce from another. Here is what she told me:

On Monday, I was at the Senior Center when I noticed a flyer on the wall:

Therapy for Healthy Seniors

It spoke to me.

My ex-husband passed away a few weeks ago, and it took me back to a dark time in my life. The feelings always lurked inside, ready to emerge. They returned me to the birth of my current name and the beginning of my best identity. The yin and the yang.

A few days later I met with the therapist. She radiated kindness as I recounted the familiar stories. The general outlines. She asked about my goals. Here’s what came up after I went home:

  • I want to make peace with myself before I die.
  • I want to accept the people who populate my life for who they are as they reveal themselves to me.
  • I want to spend my time doing things that reflect my vision of my best self. Pretty lofty targets. But I guess that’s what goals are, right?

This charming woman mentioned inventing her name. I asked her for details.

In the aftermath of my divorce from my second husband, I realized I wanted to choose a last name for myself.

If you had asked me at the time, I would have said the desire came from not wanting to go back to my maiden name and certainly not wanting to keep my married name.

Now, in hindsight, I know it primarily came out of a yearning for my own identity, no longer attaching myself only to the role of a wife or mother or my determination to do something creative in the world.

I chose Catherine Pearlson because it sounded like a writer’s name.

Here’s one unexpected thing I learned from doing this: when I told my children, my family, and my friends about my new name, not one of them questioned the decision.

They accepted the alteration straight away. My inner conviction came through to them. This was a significant boost to feeling right about the first step in my new identity.

Upon severance of the marriage, the judge said I could change my name for free as part of the divorce decree. I refused. I counted up my pennies and paid for the name change as an independent action.

My friendship with CP popped up in the last few years. She is a glowing delight, still learning, still finding a way forward even during a pandemic, and still writing, too. I hope her words speak to you as they did to me.

How many people do we meet who are beautiful inside and out, with a dash of wisdom, too?

=======

I have changed the name of “Catherine” to protect her identity. The first image is the Umm al-Fahm Skyline at Sunset by Moataz Egbaria. Next comes Crepuscular Ray Sunset – Telstra Tower, Canberra by Fir0002. Finally, Preparations for the Open-air Concert of the Dülmen Summer at Wiesmann Sports Cars, Dülmen North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany (2018), by Dietmar Rabich. They were all sourced from Wikimedia Commons.org/

The Ups and Downs of Thinking Like a Therapist

Therapists possess a “hidden” talent, but one with a downside. Their peculiar way of looking at the world creates an occupational hazard: the “gift” widens our difference from those whose approach to life is more matter of fact.

This strange flair enabled me to do my work well. My profession included providing written opinions to colleagues who wished to better understand their patient’s psychological status and diagnosis. Others requested my services as an expert witness in civil lawsuits, which developed into a small portion of my practice.

A district court also chose me to help evaluate the State of Illinois Department of Mental Health. Of course, the capability of which I’m speaking served my clients too. Otherwise, I could not have fathomed who they were, why they lived in the manner they did, and how to calm their distress.

The “secret” is in the act of questioning — how a counselor thinks and ponders his excellences, limitations, and mistakes, not just those of others. Now, though retired, I ask myself even more about the information I encounter daily, the people I speak with, and the books I read. Though I no longer search for habitual patterns in the affairs of my clients, the phrase continues to describe my approach to analyzing conduct.

The authors who capture me do more than tell a story. They attempt to leave clues to their timeless vision of mortal creatures individually and in groups.

Like them, this tendency to search for such markers was part of the reason I became a clinical psychologist. We are something like archaeologists of the soul.

Perhaps the first question I wondered about as a boy was, “Why am I me?” That is, why did my sense of self, my emotions, and my internal identity reside within a particular body and not that of, say, my next-door neighbor?

Other than genetic and evolutionary reasons, I never came up with an answer. Nonetheless, this was the first “thoughtful” question of my life.

I hoped to explain the peopled planet to myself. I remain curious. All of you who read me are of interest to me as well.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, from the Bible’s Old Testament, the following line speaks to what I’m addressing, including the act of thinking like a therapist.

“For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”

This takes the reader to some dark places. When you ask lots of questions, you see things about creation you might not be happy to face.

Even so, if you don’t figure out how to see in the darkness, you will block understanding yourself and quite a few of those you meet.

Psychological night vision enables other skills: finding opportunities in troublesome times, spotting pitfalls before you fall into them, admitting weaknesses you ought to master, and discovering a way to assist others and help make the world a better place.

Thus, it is necessary to interrogate yourself since you are the only chap you control.

We all are prone to tendencies quite different from the kind of scrutiny I’m describing. Most of us prefer simple answers and wear metaphorical sunglasses to shield ourselves from mankind’s darkness as much as we can. The way we try to determine if someone — let’s call him Person A — is good or bad provides an example.

Your solution to the dilemma of classifying Person A depends on how you define the sinful/saintly divide and, significantly, under what conditions you think the individual is good or bad. Say, in the cafeteria, in the bedroom, at work, or raising his children.

Since we lack access to much more than what A tells us, what others tell us about him, and receive no 24-hour video surveillance of the poor guy, we usually take the incomplete data we have and assume the bloke displays consistency in every circumstance.

Psychologists recognize this isn’t so.

Few folks want to see the shady side of those about whom they care. And we tend to dismiss kindnesses in those we dislike. Thus, we form simple, unitary opinions: A or B, good or bad. Questioning, for me, attempts to take a deeper look. We are more complicated than any superficial examination reveals.

It is easier to come to judgments about others than reflect upon why they are the way they are and in which situations they are different from their usual manner of self-presentation. As suggested, no one is constant — just one thing — always the same no matter the circumstances.

Still, we mostly get a glimpse of what is obvious.

The Stoic philosophers knew better than the simplifiers. They emphasized that no one achieves awareness of himself until he has been tested, if then. The trials they referred to include various temptations, dangers, moments demanding moral or physical courage, and how we respond to calamity. What you do then, not what you think you would do, defines your character.

In case you wonder, I got a passing grade on a number of these tests and failed others. So I’d like to believe. Ha! But — and I emphasize this — a better judge always must be a lady or gentleman at the head of the courtroom, not the one on trial. We forgive our lapses with disturbing frequency.

Much of the human world lives in a rationalized daydream of moral innocence. People believe they would survive unstained in situations they’ve never encountered and praise their purity without supporting evidence.

On the other hand, determining and criticizing someone else’s compromised or imperfect nature comes easily. Moreover, we do need societal judging, without which there would be full-time chaos.

However much judging is required in the world, one should take care since those who cover the mirrors in their own home almost make a profession of pointing fingers.

The kind of questioning I usually engage in nearly 75 years in the making. I imagine the process will continue to develop. It involves less categorical judgment than previous versions in my three-quarters of a century among all of you and those I knew who came before and left before me.

In describing a life of questions, I’m not recommending the practice as necessary or wise for all. The tendency to do so has chosen me in the God-given nature with which I was thrown into the world and the early life unique to me. I have merely decided to exercise and refine the process.

The skill is also the property of most therapists to an uncommon degree compared to those who make a living in other work. Nor would I recommend it to anyone much younger.

Young people are better off taking life as it comes, enjoying and learning from their initiation into adulthood. To make questions useful, the art of examination must be based on sufficient experience and knowledge of humanity.

We require the many encounters we endure along the way. Surprises and disappointments that only come with “living it” provide essential information and awareness.

Studying from the mountain top or staying on guard, away from the numerous challenges of proceeding through time, leaves one with enormous blind spots. The only way anyone should take on a mountain ought to be on an expedition, if then.

Youth also is a time of passion built into the hormonal flood. While the biological flow can be trouble, it is the source of much joy if you are lucky enough. We discover so much without knowing it as we proceed through the thicket of all the rapid changes in a youthful body.

The “first times” shower and dazzle we poor souls, or should. They come with new schools, new friends, new environments, new loves, and alterations to the world around us.

It is not a time for standing from an objective place outside of and distant from experience, a marginalizing choice. I realize this from having taken such stances early, though fortunately, I decided to enter the fray of existence because I realized I needed to reshape myself.

In his poem “The Archaic Torso of Apollo, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “You must change your life.” You, meaning each of us, in our never-ending response to the internal and external torrent in addition to the river of time’s usually gentler flow.

From the now distanced standpoint of recognizing there is more time behind than ahead, I also increasingly put my ego aside. When trying to investigate something, beginning with the unconscious intention of defending your ideas, you reduce the chance of rearranging beliefs and learning new lessons.

This position requires humility, a stance from which you realize, “I do not know everything, and I’ve not had every sort of life experience.”

I am enlarged by conversations in which I listen to the answers I am getting to my questions and what others ask or tell me. From this perspective, in the best cases, I learn more and am enriched by human contact and knowledge.

When the encounter works, as I hope it does some of the time (whether reading a great novel or speaking with someone who will engage me with fresh notions and reflections), I consider myself lucky and sometimes become a better person. That is, I intend to.

Another way I’ve grown is the result of looking at those occasions when I was unkind.

For a therapist, there is some overlap between performing your vocation and the position you take as a private conversation partner, at least for me. One needs to remember who this person is, their sensitivities, what might prompt their discomfort, etc.

The individual’s reactions also raise the prospect of questioning him (and yourself) about the state of play between the two of you and whether he desires something different from you. The word “play” needs to be taken in two ways. First, as the playing field of life and second, as a space offering the freedom to enjoy the other — with a watchful eye for the emergence of friction or animosity.

For those personal and therapeutic relationships not going well, it is appropriate to consider whether the conceptualization you’ve created of this individual is erroneous.

Did you miss something? What? And how does this insight revise or complete your picture of him? Importantly, does this knowledge lead to changes in your words and actions in the future? You are always doing this in performing your job, less often with friends and acquaintances.

Since retiring, the questions I repeatedly focus on include the larger human dilemma and the pattern of history leading everyone to this moment. I wish to find out what those I’m close to, and the great minds of history think about this remarkable thing on loan to us, which we call life. Also, how they, the living souls I love, understand themselves.

I reflect on my life, look back at a few regrets, and try to adjust to a world and a physical self in flux, moving in the challenging direction we all come to do with age.

An old friend once emphasized the importance of asking “the second question.” Here is another way of describing the process in which I engage. Most people don’t do this. The common spontaneous expression “That makes sense” too often stops the evaluation without considering alternatives. As the old saying tells us, “Common sense isn’t so common.” You might be surprised by what happens if you ask “the second question” or even a few more.

Some people are made uncomfortable by the questioning. Even those more open should not feel like you are putting them on a witness stand of confrontation, indifferent to the tender spots they try to hide. I’d venture very many members of the human race set aside the task of self-reflection, confident they already understand themselves.

An acquaintance of many years recently told me he was free of regret about his life and was at a loss to remember any significant injuries he did to others. I suppose I’d say he hasn’t reflected enough, but he is a happy man.

Perhaps wisdom lies in his approach if the goal of life is happiness instead of self-awareness and becoming the best self one can be. Certainly, we all want the joy.

As to where to discover the wisdom, that’s a question for you, too.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Above are four examples of Mark Rothko’s work in an art form called Abstract Expressionism. All are untitled, except for names that refer to the colors employed. The top 1963 painting derives from the Smithsonian Institute. Next comes Purple, White, and Red  (1953), then works from 1967 and 1969. The last three can be found in the Art Institute of Chicago.

 

Finding the Balance between Effort and Surrender

Wisdom turns up in unexpected places. Who said, “Life exists somewhere between effort and surrender”?

The legendary and still active 44-year-old quarterback in the National Football League, Tom Brady, might be the most recent.

Many discovered this before him, including Danielle Orner:

Life is a balance between what we can control and what we cannot. I am learning to live between effort and surrender.
I imagine the Buddhists came up with something similar long ago.

How does this apply to therapy?
 


The most distressed of my patients — the joyless ones — inhabited one end or the other. Those who took the effort to an extreme sometimes achieved material or professional success but almost always encountered repeated frustration to obtain it.

Their singular focus also entailed costs for marriage and family.

A number of these, usually men, tackled life as if on the playing field where the domination of the opposition demanded mastery. They viewed problems as a series of obstacles to be overcome to the point of relentlessness. Such individuals were formidable but not easy to live with.

Openness, they believed, revealed weakness.
 
Serenity lay beyond their reach, leading to treatment.
The ones who specialized in surrender gave in to fear out of a lack of confidence and a punishing history. The human beings they encountered fell into the category of potential deliverers of harm, a kind of enemy army. Intimacy and emotional risk lived in the same category.

The safest way of surviving, as they believed, was to trust no one. Pets frequently provided warmth people didn’t.
 
In each of these cases, the counselor’s job is to ask the patient the cost of their favored strategy. If they identify the price, treatment goes forward. A bumpier path lies ahead if the individual has not reflected on the downside.

More than a few continue to defend their preferred choice. They will, perhaps, encounter more emotional pain or disappointment before choosing to make necessary alterations in their style of living. They might require reflection upon why they decided to be the person they are. However, a clear decision might not have occurred since none of us know our motives in every detail.

Many of my clients found their approach to life as children or teens. The solution appeared as the best available choice for the circumstances of the time, place, and people who surrounded them. I’m speaking of parents, relatives, schoolmates, and teachers. Keeping your head down and avoiding attention developed into a necessity for survival.

Time and experience reveal less satisfaction in the course of their lives. To the extent they become aware of the limitations growing out of their existing style, a search begins to remedy their discontent.

The world had changed around them, and the behavioral choices of decades past came to provide less profit and more loss. It was as if the new tires they put on their human vehicle years ago became threadbare.

With enough pain, the motivation to seek a better way ahead emerges.
 
 
But what of the balance between effort and surrender? That idyllic place is a moving target. Always.

I once asked Rick Taft, who managed investments for a living, whether he believed the stock market would rise or fall. “It will fluctuate,” he said.
 
This is true for stocks and most everything else. Just as the weather changes, we retain no promise of health, happiness, wealth, or much else. But if we can stop depending on a smooth life course, we have taken the first step toward emotional balance.
 
Without a single, permanent, satisfying spot between effort and surrender, what then? Here are ten suggestions:
  • Take opportunities where and when they arise. Doors open, but not always more than once.
  • Recognize the only unchanging experience in life is change. You cannot freeze the planet or our bodies in place, as the climate reminds us. Learn to become a tightrope walker on a windy day.
  • You do not have to take every opportunity, but take more than are comfortable if your nature is hesitant. Pull back instead if those instincts tend to push you to jump without looking.
  • Life will unsettle you, as it does to all of us. Resolve to reach for joy in small things, lest the inevitable unfairness of some days wrecks your disposition.
  • No one thinks about you as much as you believe. Others spend too much time with a miniature version of themselves buzzing around their brains. The focus outside of themselves emerges less often, except in moments of outsized feelings like love, hate, and fear. Therefore, don’t worry endlessly about looking foolish and making mistakes, lest you recall embarrassment long after the crowd has moved on.
  • You’ll grow more if you do more and find some exhilaration in daunting moments, balanced or not.
  • Learn to meditate, beginning in a calm and quiet circumstance when possible. Daily practice centered on your breath (as the top video suggests) reduces your chance of being swept away by a stiff breeze or worse.
  • No one figures out their life. Few of us fully display our pain and confusion. Do not be fooled by appearances.
  • If you can find a tender and consoling hand, reach for it. If you see a needy soul, extend your own to them.
  • Smile and laugh. Most of our worries don’t become a reality, and among those that turn out as we feared, a remedy might be found with time and effort.

We live in transit — in a perpetual transition, no matter its static appearance. A man in a train moving at a steady pace has no sense of forward motion except when he looks out the window. An observer outside the train, however, wouldn’t be in doubt about the fellow’s progress.

With the above in mind, think of life as a series of alternatives. The midpoint between them should not always be your target:

    • Sleeping — waking.
    • Seriousness — laughter.
    • Learning — teaching.
    • Following — leading.
    • Being for yourself — being for others.
    • Head — heart.
    • Action — contemplation.
    • With people — alone.
    • Reading — writing.
    • Contemplation — spontaneity.
    • Being in the moment — being conscious of yourself.
    • Looking back — looking forward.
    • Listening — speaking.
    • Getting — spending.
    • Indoors — outdoors.
    • Accumulation of material things — reaching for experiences.
    • Assertion — passivity.
    • Diving in — waiting.

Are you disappointed I have not offered you a simple answer to this puzzle?

Sorry, I am too busy working it out for myself, searching for each day’s new balance!

———-

Beneath the top video are the following images, in order:

  1. An 1891 poster from Wikimedia Commons of Félicia Mallet by Jules Chéret.
  2. Tears of Blood  by Oswaldo Guayasami.
  3. An incredible view of Lake Misurina, Italy, from History Daily.
  4. The Example of One Choice Question, a screenshot simulation from the TV show Are You Smarter Than the Primary School Students? Taiwanese version. The picture’s author is 竹筍弟弟 (talk) from Wikimedia Commons.

    On Adult Attachment to Children

    There is nothing like the wordless sadness of a beautiful face dear to you. I’m referring to the small, huggable, wide-eyed ones when overtaken by uncertain illness.

    “Mine!” is one of his favorite words, claiming property his bigger brother shows an interest in. The malady, however, offered nothing he wanted to keep.

    The upbeat mood of the smiling, sweet-as-chocolate cherub melts in a few minutes. Energy departs, spirit evaporates, words transmute into inexpressable discomfort. The flush of heat rises, but the body descends.

    The sick two-year-old loses his chatter.

    My youngest grandson does not reach for a hand — doesn’t lead you to a toy, or a place, or try to have you for himself instead of sharing you with his six-year-old brother.

    It must be tough to be a little fellow, hard to make your imperfect utterances understood.

    Now he wants the hugs only a mom and dad can supply — seeks their comfort and embrace, the safety he can’t describe.

    You watch this happen. COVID fertilizes your fear, growing like Jack’s speedy beanstalk. The concern is new, though other epochs had their own dangers — smallpox, polio, plague …

    The moppet slumps into slumber. You depart, but the precious person grips your heart, now shadowed by a cloud.

    The day passes. Your wife’s sleep is fitful.

    The golden boy holds the sorrowful power to instill worry.

    Daughter #2, his mother, sends a message early the next day.

    A long nap, his parents’ knowing, double-duty attention, food, and more sleep sweep the danger away. The tentative all-clear sounds.

    The news makes the sun shine brighter today. The superpowers of small children extend to the stars.

    Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.”

    What the writer didn’t say might have also been spoken about love. We are held fast by our loves, the closest friends, our offspring, and our grandkids, too.

    Those attachments can do far worse to us than the bit of concern we had that day. Much, much worse. Many near misses and joys await. Best not to borrow trouble.

    But this two-year-old deserves credit. His bounce-back brought the sky’s warmest blue. Only the dearest hearts inside you do this. He sprinkles fairy dust and doesn’t even know it.

    ==============

    The first photo dates from 1934 and was published in Modern Screen magazine in 1950. The two-year-old girl is Elizabeth Taylor, with her mother Sara Sothern and brother Howard.

    The second image was taken by Rita Martin and shows an unnamed child in 1912. Both of the photographs were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

    What Family Photos Tell Us

    I’d known since childhood. Mom told me her dad had been hospitalized with the Spanish Flu during World War I. Millions perished worldwide, 675,00 in the USA, not just the old but young adults in their prime.

    Like Leo Fabian.

    Grandpa.

    I didn’t think much about the averted calamity. The event hid behind my eyes while I focused on the world in front of them. Too bad I buried the idea of his medical confinement. I could have asked granddad before his much later, real burial rites.

    Eventually, a new thought pushed up for my consideration. If he’d died, my birth vanished with him. Jeanette Stein emerged in late 1918. Without Leo Fabian, no mom, no marriage between her and Milton Stein, no baby psychologist Gerry, no superman Eddie and champion bodybuilder Jack, my brothers.

    No Sam Fabian, either — my uncle and his three kids. No grandchildren at all.

    Long before my folks passed on, they gave me three large photo portraits. One of them showed Leo and Esther Fabian (my grandmother) with their first child, Aunt Nettie. Like all such images of the time, the posed picture was undated and formal — a no-smiles-permitted, dress-up occasion. These staged likenesses displayed dignity, pride, and status, along with severity.

    My imagination didn’t go far with the story of a family cut short. The brain inside me allowed minimal consideration of the image or its implications.

    Decades ago, I hung the thick wooden frame in my home office and became accustomed to the threesome watching me over my left shoulder. They look at me from 103 years of distance now.

    They were patient from the start, you might say. Waiting for me to discover their undivulged secret.

    At some point, I observed the front of my grandmother’s black skirt rising over her white blouse into a baby bump just below her diaphragm. Seen but not interpreted, not realized as carrying a contradiction in addition to a new life.

    Then it struck home.

    Leo Fabian, the surviving target of the pandemic, fathered a second child before his illness. Esther was pregnant. My mother’s appearance in the family play didn’t depend on her father’s survival.

    The perception of my history swiveled at the knowledge. What would have happened to Esther if she became a widowed mother in 1918 with two preschool children? A woman with limited English and no trade or training to make a living for herself and those young ones?

    Would she have found a way to cross the ocean back to Lithuania? How would the overseas clan have accommodated newcomers amidst the turmoil of the just-ended WWI? If they survived, would all of them then die in the Holocaust some 20 years ahead?

    Might one of her sisters, who also came to America with her, permitted the three to move in? Wait. One of them died young and left her own three children. The widower husband, Harry Kraft, married the remaining unmarried sibling. No guarantees of a safe harbor there.

    Might an orphanage have been the little girls’ fated destiny?

    Or maybe Esther, Nettie, and little Jeanette would have lucked out in an unimagined way.

    None of this is knowable. You might ask, though, why it took me so long to recognize the photographic evidence for what it was.

    In any case, from my perspective, Leo Fabian’s recovery from his illness was essential for mom’s romance with dad, probably even her meeting with him.

    Of course, some of you may believe fortuitous relationships are “meant to be.” It is comforting if life works out as you wish it; more disturbing if a guiding hand sends you in an unwanted direction.

    Many others, the author among them, believe chance plays a big factor in every past, present, and future.

    Or perhaps, along with some quantum physicists, you’ve decided that infinite versions of our lives are being lived at this moment, all simultaneously, all different. No less than Stephen Hawking thought so.

    In the end, no matter what you do with such thoughts, you are immersed in the one world we inhabit (even if it is a dream).

    Best to concentrate on staying afloat.

    A full-time job, for sure.

    ====================

    The first image is my mother, probably not long after her marriage to my dad in 1940.  Then, in succession, my Aunt Nettie when she was still the only child of Leo and Esther, Esther’s baby bump, Esther, and Leo. Other than the top photo, they all come from the early family portrait of the Fabians mentioned in this essay.

    Love and Where We Find It, Including the Therapist’s Office

    Our feelings are attached to places and dates, dates in both senses of the term. People with a good memory can even tell you the room or moment when particular words were spoken — when the mood or lighting altered because a relationship changed.

    First meetings, last meetings, and relational drama become almost like a portion of the architecture and appearance of the place where they happened. The spot takes on an emotional resonance out of proportion to what a stranger would notice.

    No wonder the counselor’s office becomes part of your alliance with him. Even your time slot in his schedule organizes your life and attaches to the experience of therapy. His consulting room is not just a place where memories are uncovered but where they are made.

    If you’ve ever owned a home or lived anywhere for a long while, you may have returned soon after you left. Maybe your route from work put you on the old path without thinking.

    Others go back consciously, though not sure what draws them. Some want to revisit an unforgotten ineffable quality associated with this material segment of their history. Or perhaps they still search for the events that happened there or the one or ones with whom they occurred.

    The evoked sentiments loom larger than the manufactured creation. They make the edifice small by comparison.

    —–

    An older woman I know, someone I am close to, visited Chicago decades after leaving for the suburbs, then California, and finally Nebraska. When arriving her first time back, she wanted to see the old neighborhood we both inhabited and the “other house” where her teenage years transpired.

    This charming lady’s youth and home life were troubled, but not so for the earliest years near my family. Her parents wished to rise in the world, motivating their departure from the north side of the “Windy City.”

    The dad, in particular, had been marked by poverty. Adult ambition took them all to a posh Chicago suburb, where parental conflict, poor parenting, debt, and the father’s illness and early death damaged everyone. The best part of her life remained back in the old dwelling on Talman Avenue, the street where I knew her.

    The status-driven designer house was supposed to make all their lives better, but when our tour stopped in front of it, the recollections embedded in the place bubbled up. A flood of tears followed. Once she caught her breath, she said, “For this.”

    For this?

    They’d moved from a location where she had friends and felt accepted and acceptable, where her parents got along with each other: a place where the idea of home meant safety.

    The exit from West Rogers Park leading to the family’s new chapter became a loss, not the betterment expected. The ensuing unhappiness tied itself to the new site.

    The finer set of walls, rooms, and a circular driveway brought no satisfaction, no lofty place in the world. This was the graveyard of hope, not its fulfillment.

    The therapist sometimes enables people to feel they are worthy of love after a lifetime of believing they are broken, ugly, or stupid — “too sensitive,” disturbed, or weak. The fact of being valued can cause outsized affection, transference, perhaps love of the one who assisted in the process.

    When the treatment ends, it isn’t uncommon for the client to wish to take something physical — a small piece of its contents, a “thing,” but one containing personal meaning.

    This desire is similar to small children holding on to their blanket or a stuffed animal to calm them when the parent isn’t available. But saying goodbye to the counselor is different.

    The article given by the clinician is a transitional object and also something more, intended to preserve indescribable emotions indefinitely. Mom and dad return, but from the healer, there is a parting.

    Momentos needn’t be beautiful to carry the significance of the people and moments we retrieve from those inanimate creations, the sentiment they offer. We also remember places, sometimes unremarkable, because of those beside us when we were there — the beloved parents, partners, and pals of our lives.

    —–

    When the Madison and Wabash elevated train platform underwent deconstruction and remodeling, I could not look at it without recalling my dad. He and I stood on the now-discarded wooden planks many times and at many different ages.

    I doubt I will ever see that station without thoughts of him, though the boards on which we trod have disappeared.

    I imagine there are such locations in your life. They become part of us.

    Are the things intended to catch lightning in a bottle — the electric charge of human contact?

    The best possible “bottle” evokes emotion in touch with the heart. Perhaps, too, “sessions of sweet silent thought,” as Shakespeare would say.

    When you are old and ridding yourself of worn-out objects and stuff of no value, I suspect you will keep those beyond price because they carry this special kind of magic.

    ====================

    The photo of the old Madison and Wabash “L” (Elevated Train) Station is the work of David Wilson. The image was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

    For those who don’t know the Chicago “Loop,” the term first referred to the area within the “L” train’s loop-like route around the city’s downtown center.

    Why I (Still) Write Blog Posts

    I began this blog in 2009. The driving reason was to leave my thoughts to my children for whatever they might find worthwhile, especially after taking off for the great beyond if such a place exists. This was not my sole motive to scribble, however.

    As they all recognize, writers write out of inner necessity, an activity so essential to their being they cannot do otherwise for long. Some hope for fame, but few outlast the memory of their name if that. I never embraced their goal.

    Offering your written words to the reading world takes a small bit of courage since not everyone will agree with what you say. With few, if any, ideas not thought or said by the best minds of our past, one needs ego to believe your new material will stand out with anything new.

    Part of what justifies the idea of presenting personal observations despite all the brilliant writers of yesterday is the time in which we live. Every human life exists within a unique moment and place, no matter the similarities to all the history preceding us.

    A few decades ago, a Ford Foundation study concluded the daily New York Times contained more information to process than the average sixteenth-century man had to consume in his lifetime. Wow!

    The thought is astonishing until one recognizes who the gentleman was: a creature who couldn’t read or write, never got far from home, lived and died in the blink of an eye, and performed the same repetitive tasks without end.

    No TV, computer, Internet, either, not even choices of toothpaste. Just flowers at weddings to make sure the new pair didn’t overpower each other with an unpleasant odor.

    We live in a moment when the speed of change leaves us dazzled, dazed, delighted, or distressed, depending. Thus, I can rationalize my words as fitting for the time you and I share.

    I also write for other reasons. The first of these would be the help or enjoyment the posts give to some readers. The second is praise, though I’m pretty self-sustaining without it.

    Another, and this is significant, the act of composing keeps my brain active and focused away from occasional dystopian reflections I can’t escape about the world’s current state. Furthermore, the task of assembling sentences gets my mind off the usual worries and personal concerns none of us can avoid without something else to do.

    Many use drugs as a distraction to help with this. Lots of folks get comfort from prayer. In addition to writing, I employ meditation and study, conversation, human companionship, love, comedies, and helping those I can when I can.

    An unexpected bonus has been the correspondence I’ve had with a handful of individuals. I took joy from meetings with four of them I didn’t already know. Homo sapiens fall in love online; why shouldn’t they fall into friendship, too?

    Another reward was a surprise gift from a person I did know, who made a book for me out of my writings up to the moment she presented it. She is a dear heart, as I’m certain are many of those whose comments in response to my work reveal their humanity.

    I now have two young grandchildren, boys. Like most of you who reproduced, the children’s health, not gender, was all I cared about. Yet, I’m glad I have the chance to watch these spirited souls grow up and to aid a bit in the process. Thus, I set down words for them, as well.

    I am aware I repeat myself — duplicating points I made among the over 600 published titles you can find here in the Archives. Inevitable, I suppose.

    I also change my mind or discover research findings not available when I started the compelling hobby. I’d argue the fellow who began 12 years ago has been altered by moving into a new version of body and brain as we all do as we age, aware or not.

    Those changes of heart, soul, additional experience, and reflection will take you places you never imagined going. Therefore, my posts have also changed.

    For those who continue to read me, I’m forever amazed and grateful to the people who’ve consumed about everything in these electrified white and black pseudo-pages. I’m pleased, too, new arrivals find their way here, despite my lack of presence on conventional social media.

    So, my thanks to each of you for hanging out with me. I hope to be doing this for a while yet.

    ——

    Another person I met online: Laura Hedien, Storm Cloud Photography. With her permission, the two works used above are Supercell in Nebraska, 2021, and Sunflare, sunset in N.D, 2021. As always, I’m grateful to have made the connection with her and appreciate her generosity.

    The Indirect Messages We Find Hard to Understand

    There are many ways we are informed of our place in the world, where we fit in the lives of others. I’m speaking of relationships and work.

    I imagine you’ve read about open body language, making eye contact, pleasing facial expression, and whether we ask another person about himself and his ideas. Such behaviors or their absence provide information about our standing.

    I’ll mention a few more later, but the main attraction for today speaks to the question differently. Let me tell you a story.

    Two white men chatted in a waiting room a couple of weeks ago, another gentleman and me. He spotted my Cubs hat and struck up a conversation. The time passed in an entertaining, cordial way until his turn came to enter the office.

    The out-of-shape fellow employed a walker but had a most pleasant and engaging disposition. I’m guessing we belong to the same generation.

    For sure, we shared our love of baseball. But the sports stories he related aren’t what lingers within me. Rather, he told a tale of early employment, unlike anything I knew.

    This charming bloke labored in the building industry for most of his life, a muscle-taxing, manual way of making a living. Still a teen, his first job required him to dig a trench, a task of several days.

    On the morning of his first day, a truck came by and stopped beside the dig site. The driver’s elevated position in the covered vehicle reflected a higher status since all the other employees engaged in physical challenges exposed to the summer sun and the heat.

    The communication began:

    “Hey, buddy, would you like some coffee?”

    “Thanks, but can I have a Pepsi Cola instead?”

    The man behind the wheel turned away and drove on.

    In the afternoon, the same truck showed up again. My chum looked up as the rig stopped. The now-familiar voice spoke:

    “Hey, buddy, would you like some coffee?”

    The new guy on the job recognized his previous mistake.

    “Yes, thanks.”

    “What do you take in it?”

    “Cream and sugar.”

    “We don’t do that here.” So the big machine sped off.

    When the workday ended, the rookie took a bit of time to reflect during his trip back to his parents’ house. He wondered what happened. The youthful chap was not stupid, though he had little experience outside of home and school. The second day found him more prepared.

    The predictable arrival of the authority figure offered the unsurprising question.

    “Hey, buddy, would you like some coffee?”

    “Yes, with cream.”

    “Good,” came the reply, and, not long after, the creamed beverage appeared.

    What do you believe happened between the older man and the younger one? Think for a moment before I tell you what I imagine.

    In the world of beasts, birds, and the (so-called) civilized creatures on the planet, there is a form of ranking known as a “pecking order.” Here is an internet definition:

    A hierarchy of status seen among members of a group of people or animals, originally as observed among hens.

    To fit into the social world, one must learn where one stands, what behavior is acceptable, what is not, when to listen, when to speak, when it is your turn in the “pecking order.”

    Thus, assuming my waiting-room companion wanted a tolerable place in the arrangement of laborers, he needed to discover how to behave. In effect, the coffee potentate trained him about his rank and the consequences if he didn’t accept without question the lowly station he occupied as “the new guy.”

    If my temporary buddy wanted to continue working in this place, individualism was out. Unless he first blended in with the crowd and followed orders, no guarantees existed. To put it another way, the conditions demanded recognition of even unstated rules, to sink or swim without swimming lessons.

    He learned to swim.

    I could be wrong and, if you have a different interpretation, please tell me. But, to my mind, the youngster who is now an oldster received the unorthodox instruction — “know your place” — without the remark ever being made.

    Bigots of the time said such things when talking or writing about black people.

    The story I related took place over 50 years ago. These days, one might realize one’s standing with a “friend” if, for example, he makes you wait but not others or drops his attention to you when someone else enters the room.

    Or maybe he engages in monologues without asking you questions about yourself, wants to see you only when he needs a favor, doesn’t respond to calls, texts, emails, etc.

    Of course, we all fall short with friends on occasion, but some do it as a matter of routine. Were I to choose from these methods of communication, I’d prefer the method of the construction workers to that of the inconsiderate friend. But that’s just me.

    We all have to do some wiggling to find a satisfactory spot in the world. At least for a while until we develop the confidence, strength, and character to say no to the person who imposes unfavorable conditions on us.

    And then, if you also have economic security, you can set many of the guidelines and, I hope, be considerate to those around you.

    My favorite comment on the role money plays under similar circumstances is best captured in the words of a famous, long deceased harmonica player named Larry Adler.

    It is as eloquent as it is vulgar, so turn away if you must:

    You should always have enough ‘fuck you’ money.

    Sorry for that. No other phrase quite captures the sentiment.

    =======================

    The top two images were created by Laura Hedien in May and reproduced here with her permission: https://laurahedien.com/

    The first was taken Outside of Gail, Texas. The second displays a Sunset in Texas. The final image is the work of William Gottlieb, derived from Wikimedia Commons. It is a portrait of Larry Adler and his frequent collaborator, the dancer Paul Draper, in City Center, New York, around 1947.

    The First Young Love

    The three-year-old beauty flapped her arms to express her urgency. “Put those away; he’s coming, he’s coming!” The mother smiled and followed orders. The tiny sweetie knew a remarkable young man and his family were about to arrive. She didn’t want him to spot the box containing her diapers. Accidents still happened, knowledge to be hidden from her first love.

    Who was the object of her concern and admiration? My not quite six-year-old grandson, the heartthrob of her sister’s kindergarten class.

    W met his classmate, the older sister, soon after moving to the new family home. This was their first in-person school experience. Herself a cutie, Maddie sent W a note before her at-home competitor knew of his existence. “I Luv yu,” she scrawled, along with a heart and Cupid’s arrow. Writing, reading, and spelling are new to these kids.

    The youthful hero, one of two grandchild carriers of my DNA, is the real deal. He is tall, handsome, and charming. Moreover, my boy is an outgoing storyteller and knows his future profession: paleontologist.

    The number of those smitten is growing, sending similar love notes taxing to the postal service. Now you know why the mail is late.

    Unfortunately for his admirers, the young man’s mind is on dinosaurs, the extinct creatures of his intended full-time occupation. Live beings hold interest for this prospective scientist for playing, friendship, and nothing more. They are playmates, but not the Hugh Hefner kind.

    W has no idea he is the talk of his youthful cohorts and their parents, but he doesn’t appear fazed by the frequent tender offerings from the captured hearts. I’m sure the unawareness of his charm makes him more appealing. Asked by his mom about his matrimonial future, he said he doesn’t ever intend to marry.

    Yesterday I watched a video of Mr. Gorgeous making repeated climbs to the top of a pool slide, then giggling all the way down. The young man’s joy should be bottled. The only difficulty was that each of the slides caused his swim trunks to edge south. W’s dad reminded him to pull them up. Insubstantial hips didn’t block the downward drift. God help his fan club if they should discover him this way.

    During summer days in safe residential neighborhoods, you might see colored chalk drawings on the sidewalk. Some of these could be the handiwork of female children like those who dream of my oldest grandson. They display many hearts, rainbows, and good wishes.

    Lucky adults like me remember those days. The world is simple and benign for such fortunate kids. It is a vision more precious because it isn’t permanent. Still, some will keep the sense of wonder, goodness, and innocence embedded within them — and be better for it.

    We should all be so lucky. In the meantime, W and his lady friends — and I do mean friends — warm my heart, bring a smile, and even an occasional tear to my eyes. Such moments make life wonderful.

    Note to myself: cherish them.

    ———-

    The image is called Love Since Childhood by Katyatula. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.