When Words Fail — In or Out of Therapy

I recently reread All Quiet on the Western Front in a class I take. The group consists of bright, well-read folks. Thoughtful to a fault.

I say that because, to me, the better you are with words, the more likely you will try to use them to explain experiences beyond description. Yet psychotherapy is about the fullness and meaning of those incidents and one person’s effort to convey them to another.

Even the name of the novel we completed shows how communication can fail. The translation from the German is wrong.

Erich Maria Remarque entitled this tale of World War I awfulness, Nichts Neu im Westen. I grasp enough Deutsch to tell you it means, Nothing New in the West.

“Nothing new” — just a few more deaths, more pointless battles over a space of — say — one hundred yards, traded between sides, over and again.

But what I’ve written here is insufficient and that is my point. The meat of the book, as moving as it is, attempts to describe trench warfare, death piled on meaningless death; heroism and stupidity and the loss of hope. Because I read “All Quiet,” I might now know something about war, but I do not know war.

In the seminar we struggled to understand. My noncombatant friends and I squandered many words attempting to think through something having little to do with thought. We were all touched by the story, sure. This wasn’t enough.

A wartime example might help, though still fail to achieve understanding. My wife’s father manned a supply truck during WWII. His partner in the task shared the job of transporting needed goods — military hardware, food, and other necessaries — to the front. They spent over a year side-by-side and became best friends.

On a day no different than hundreds of others, talking and laughing and complaining and telling stories as they always did, a sniper’s bullet killed Tom Henek’s buddy. Covered with the blood of a man he loved, the soldier who would sire my wife drove on.

Those are the facts. The single survivor — the man who relived the murder in post-traumatic dreams — himself died long ago. No one is present to add or subtract from the description. We civilians lack the conceptual and affective adequacy to approach what the lived-experience was like, only analogues from our own terrors and near-misses.

A movie might help, perhaps the opening of Saving Private Ryan, however much falling short.

What can we impart of joy? The birth of a child, sex, whatever is your happiest memory? Those without children won’t comprehend. The solitary who never made love “in love” can’t enter the realm of the incommunicable. Poor creatures holding only gray memories of a rocky life might find their best day difficult to recall as a pulsing, radiant thing.

Yet this is what therapists do: try to understand those with a different history from their own.

Healers can’t get inside of you. They listen to the inflections, depend on the definitions they hope you share. Add your eyes, the ache in your voice, and body language. No wonder you are frustrated at times. No wonder they are frustrated at times. Nor am I including the secrets you’ve not told or the knowledge of yourself you don’t possess.

There are people in our lives — if you are like me — about whom you will learn more some time after not seeing them. I’m talking of a forest and trees phenomenon. We need to be close-up to make out some things. The rest takes form at a distance. Such perception is of little use to the departed, but the one who stumbles upon a new depth of insight is enlarged in a way I also cannot describe.

Trust me — “trust me about this” — is now a phrase that might mean a bit more to you. Perhaps you won’t be quick to trust the expression anymore. Remember, too, I’m using words to communicate; words you are encouraged to rely upon less.

Asking questions of the speaker might help him explain himself to you.

Might.

We are desperate. We wish to be understood. Do you have more than a faint sense of me, precise and perceptive in detail? To most of you I am black letters against white space on a phone or computer; perhaps a recorded voice on the Internet or a photo. In any shared real life you’d witness moments of irritation, disappointment, weariness, self-assertion, laughter and more.

No one knows the entirety of another. I haven’t told you everything, nor admitted to myself the totality of who I am.

Perhaps my tendency to answer questions truthfully is too rare a quality. Those who desire tender acceptance have no chance without frankness. Thus, I try to be frank.

Here is another consideration. Counselors often withhold the truths for which they believe their client is unprepared. Whether we are counselors or not, we are a combination of what we say and the matters we consign to silence. Listeners make assumptions about the latter with no definite idea of the unseen iceberg below the other’s visible self-presentation.

We enter relationships and conversations as if all of us — every one — wore a hair piece. An observer might detect it, but still does not perceive what is underneath.

Science fiction of the Star Trek universe offers a non-conversational way of fathoming the other: the Vulcan mind meld. Here is a completeness of intimacy to the most terrifying degree imaginable: sharing every thought, every feeling, every recollection. Imagine the holder of a pitcher pouring them into you.

I learned the unreliability of language at home. I had one honest parent and another who couldn’t bear too much truth. Therein resided the equivalent of a university education. My nature was more attuned to the former.

Forty-years after his return from the European zone of combat, I asked my dad what he recalled of his reunion with my mom. A first phone call from New York stood out. The man I loved wept reliving the moment.

Did I understand? Well, I partook of his retelling, and that was more than sufficient. If we are sympathetic witnesses to such inwardness, the two of us become closer. Patients and doctors, parents and children, friends and lovers. We don’t need to fathom everything.

I keep a scrapbook of invisible moments, often silent — a look or a touch, a smile or a tear.

The possibility of knowing sometimes depends upon the unsayable.

The first painting is called City Landscape — 1955,  by Joan Mitchell.  It is followed by Georgia O’Keefe’s White Shell with Red. Both come from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Sweet Memories and the Drowning of the Sun

A murder of sorts happens every day. You’ve seen it, but didn’t think to make a police report.

Remember the day at the lake? Or was it the ocean? You thought you watched the sunset.

Nope.

The invisible hands of the water pulled the yellow ball down, inch by inch. The flaming star drowned. The day was done and done for.

The world departs us without even a goodbye note. Well, you might say, the sun will rise tomorrow and you’d be right. Other things, different types of disappearances, are less predictable. A final meal with a parent or friend that seemed routine when it happened. The last conversation with a comforting voice. A live recital by a musician you won’t hear again. In the moment you don’t realize the “next time” is an idea about to be defeated by fate, but some day you’ll say, “Oh, that was the last time, wasn’t it …”

No, it’s not so serious. The old buddy might still be out there. The pianist is yet performing, but no longer at his artistic peak. Best not to go to his next concert, you say. Better to remember him at the height of his perfection. Some folks — athletes and actors, singers and trapeze artists — stay on stage too long. Of course the latter reside above the stage, but you get what I mean.

Last times happen because we cannot hold the globe still any more than we can stop a bull stampede.

Reading The Night Before Christmas to your little ones becomes a swan song, too. I loved my two charming girls cuddled around me on the eve of the once-a-year gift-athon. What they thought or felt I can’t be sure. Perhaps enjoying the ritual, my voice, and the closeness; but impatient to fall asleep, the better to jump over the nighttime to the morning.

As the years passed I’m pretty sure this habit of December 24th came to mean more to me than to my little sweeties, by then less little. I found uttering the words ever more touching. The girls were getting to an age when such things wouldn’t fit: the end of their childhood and a passageway leading to one fewer intersection of our lives.

I can’t tell you when we laid to rest the pre-holiday custom, but whatever the year, it was one of those things about which I am philosophical. Life can’t be freeze-dried, tiny creatures kept small in perpetuity. Put the flight of this ritual under the heading “a small price to pay for their growth and maturity; their flourishing.”

Thursday night, though, came an encore. The unremarkable routine of baby sitting at my youngest’s house offered no foreshadowing. Bedtime approached and with it the three books my grandson’s mom put next to the recliner in his room, his invitation to dreamland.

My boy responds to the drill as well as I do. He sits in my lap after we put on his pajamas and, once the recitation ends, gets tucked in.

How lengthy he’s gotten! He no longer fits snug in my lap. Remind me to buy a larger-sized space between my chin and my knees. Soon this three-year-old — long-limbed for his limited span of years — will be too big for this position.

I was about to pick up the first book when I spotted the title: The Night Before Christmas.

My eyes moistened, but I plunged in. He’d heard it before, but not from me. I’m an animated reader, so I gave the job passion: speeding up, slowing down; some parts louder, others softer. A performance.

The tear that started at the start made its way down my right cheek by the finish. I wiped the dew away and turned the mute printed words of the other two children’s stories into sound. Afterward my parents’ great grandchild scrambled into his bed, I kissed him, and we exchanged the words “I love you.” Once the lights were dimmed I left the room.

There have been moments in my life in imitation of eternity. Maybe they are eternity if you fully inhabit them, lose yourself, forget the hourglass and the daily sunset. Reciting this verse to my progeny makes me immortal for the few minutes it takes.

The man I am is well-past thinking money is the solution to anyone’s troubled soul, outside of purchasing necessities. I am incapable of religious faith, never my strong suit. I am done asking the question “What is the meaning of life?”

As a young man I wondered and wondered.

Choose your own meaning or no meaning, but for me I’ve never come up with a more pleasing one than revisiting The Night Before Christmas with my children; and now the first male in my parents’ genetic line since my brother Jack. So long as I can do that, the sun will hover in the sky, the flaming thing keeping all my loves warm, safely beyond the water’s reach.

The idea of a river drowning the sun was borrowed from Matsuo Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, 1694. The top photo is a Sunset from Zebulun Beach, Herzliya, Israel. The photographer is RonAlmog. The last picture is the work of Maureen Boyle: Freya’s Golden Tears in the Style of Gustav Klimt. Both the sunset and the Boyle were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Thirty Things Your Therapist Couldn’t Tell You

Therapists live in a world of ideas and experience that has become their “common sense,” so familiar to them it constitutes the fabric of their being. Yet counselors hesitate to offer such knowledge at treatment’s start.

Were they to do so they’d not get the opportunity to find out who you are; and which of those considerations must be knit into the garment of treatment the two of you will share.

Beginnings are not managed best by giving you a lecture or assigning you a reading. Creation of a relationship and safety come first.

Here then are a few notions perhaps unfamiliar to you. No psychologist’s list but mine:

  1. We all edit ourselves, refine our self-presentation to suit conditions. Once we commence crossing out words, erasing opinions, using white-out on our outline, there may soon be nothing left of us. Whomever is the artificial creature created by hiding the ink-stained unsightliness, public applause for the fiction we’ve fashioned will be less satisfying than if we present truth and receive approval, at least from inside.
  2. The therapist not only discloses little about himself to avoid getting in the way of the transference. He retreats from imparting his own wisdom — an uncontestable opinion on everything. The patient must find his own. Note, I just violated that rule. Doctor/patient obligations don’t apply here. Neither are my opinions all unassailable.
  3. Counseling can make you worse.
  4. Your life won’t be ideal when you say goodbye to the clinician. Disappointment, stress, and death find everyone. Gridlock and rain foil your picnic plans. Your heart will break, desires go unfulfilled, the snow cancels your flight. But comes the day when summer marches in and hope may yet find a runway.
  5. No two will ever establish a perfect bond together, but much is possible between well-matched people who do the winning of their love over and over.
  6. Those among us who build ramparts against danger reduce the chance of growth and dazzling surprise. Injury is inescapable even in a lifetime of hiding. Homo sapiens learn to manage risk or else resemble ostriches: still vulnerable despite burying a part of their essence before they die.*
  7. Most of the planet is covered with average people. If, through natural talent or effort you can make something more of yourself, you will stand higher than your peers.
  8. Accept people whole or reject them whole. The majority change around the edges, inches at a time, if at all. Few (short of a profound course of personality remaking or a transformative life event) will alter more than moderately.
  9. No man or woman can be an expert surgeon who carves out unlikable parts of others and leaves the rest intact. Imitate the architect instead: one who recognizes a column of support, a load bearing beam essential to a building’s integrity. Remove such a part of a person you otherwise admire leaves sawdust and splinters, wreaking what made him admirable.
  10. The most heroic clients begin in pursuit of a wise man’s guidance and end by leading the way, overcoming everything.
  11. Life, not your counselor, demands metamorphosis. Each person develops adaptive styles to fit his early place and time. He comes to therapy older and off balance: like riding upon the tread of once useful tires now worn away, no longer holding the road. Without their replacement he will crash.
  12. Statis is not achievable or desirable. Each of us must adapt to a transforming world, a changing body, a different moment in history; a new set of relationships, situations, and requirements. Contentment requires getting used to not getting used to things.” (Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain ).
  13. People are far more concerned with themselves than with you. Your embarrassing moments pass unnoticed or speed into forgetfulness. Of course, this was more true before everyone bought a camera phone.
  14. Few of us understand each other well. We peer at neighbors as if through sun glasses in the darkened room of our own experience alone. Most don’t take the time to acquire the psychological expertise to do better. In any case, we must start by understanding ourselves. People tend to believe they do — their first mistake.
  15. Therapists search for maladaptive behavior patterns patients are repeating. Repetition of your parents’ mistakes also happens. You might follow in their ill-placed footsteps to reach similar goals and befriend similar people. Beware. Their mission is not yours, no matter your genetic likeness.
  16. With each added excuse you give for your acts or utterances you betray more insecurity. Even if the excuses you give are to yourself.
  17. Silence is necessary. Quiet is the needed background for the words you wish to place in the foreground. Conversation is not a test of rapid response time. Eye contact serves better than talking too much.
  18. The more conventional you are, the more difficult to understand someone who is unconventional. The more unconventional you are the more you will be misunderstood.
  19. Words are limited. Words are also needed. Ludwig Wittgenstein described their limits this way: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” All that most matters in life is beyond verbalization. Thus, analysis of beauty and love take us only so far. Intuition comes nearest to the indescribable.
  20. The more logical you are, the harder to understand someone who is emotional. The more you believe you approximate complete rationality, the more you are wrong. The more you think humans are skin-covered computers, the more you misunderstand humanity. We often reach our decisions instinctively and emotionally. A heartbeat later reasons appear, but we credit the rationalized motives with authorship of the decisions.**
  21. Everyone prefers simple explanations. Conduct sometimes has a single cause, but much of what we do is multi-determined or overdetermined. That is, more than one factor influences our actions and attitudes. For example, you want money to live, but use it to impress. Perhaps it makes you more secure, improves your self-worth, and wins companionship, as well.
  22. Those who realize they (and their fellow-men) are not always rational own an advantage. They question superficial reasoning. This recognition is itself an important piece of knowledge.
  23. Be wary of intimate disclosure too soon — in or out of session. You might frighten someone away. Or be terrified by the naked feelings and thoughts you released . Reinvention involving affective expression is best done gradually.
  24. “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” (Friedrich Nietzche).
  25. On the other hand, ” To see something as a whole one must have two eyes, one of love and one of hate.” (Nietzche again).
  26. Living in the moment is dangerous, not living in the moment is torturous. Outside of the moment you will be lost too often in self-made agony: swallowed by regret, wrapped with trepidation, or worried what others think. Within a joyous instant, by contrast, self-consciousness disappears, clocks dissolve, and everything else falls away. Ego is abandoned to the eternity of an episode transcending time. The concern here, however, is that your alert system is also discarded, leaving you exposed.
  27. Master meditators suggest the solution to life distress is not to judge the circumstances (piling pain on pain), but accepting your condition as it is. Yet they spend lots of time meditating as opposed to existing in the arena, don’t they?
  28. The species to which we belong can rationalize anything. Consider your friends. Eyeball yourself in the mirror. Even if you have been tested and think you passed, remember who scored the exam: you did.
  29. Be an enemy of routine. Give the now everything you have, lest the slicing second-hand of the clock wastes you and your time.
  30. Move toward something, not just away. Be for something, not against everything.

One more. Look up. At architectural wonders, at the powder blue sky. Down at all the small creatures and growing things. Watch the passing beauties of a world in motion. Do not allow your sophistication to impede perception. Hold fast to childlike wonder. Accept joy where it is given.

The chestnut by the eaves
In magnificent bloom
Passes unnoticed
By men of the world.***

Moral: do not allow the chestnut “in magnificent bloom” to go “unnoticed.”

—–

The top photo (untitled) is the work of the author, 2018.

*Ostriches have gotten a bad rap. They do not bury their heads in the sand to avoid danger or for any other reason. Asphyxiation would be the result. Rather, they dig underground using their head to fashion a nest for their eggs. Beyond this, they also stick their heads into the nest to turn the eggs.

** See Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

*** Haiku from Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Bashō, 1694.

Fathers and Memory

A woman I dated in college later gave a female friend the self-published autobiography of her dad. Mr. H was a complicated guy, something my old love seemed to indicate by her inscription on the inside cover of her gift:

Fathers!

If “Fathers!” meant he was narcissistic, she was right. The long account of his life mentioned his two children in only one paragraph. Their mother received a little more coverage, but the self-preoccupied writer failed to get their correct divorce date. He missed by a couple of years!

Dads and moms are on my mind because both my folks were born in November. I therefore offer you a few thoughts on how we remember people.

For example, I had several of Milt Stein’s baseball caps, but recently threw out most of them. I saved them after his death, all still holding his scent. His unique human fragrance was the whole — the remaining all one could then retain of his physicality. Now, lacking that redolence, they mean less to me. So long as I keep a couple I am satisfied.

My father’s electric razor held his presence, too; in the bull dozed bits of beard and the detritus of flaked skin. They reminded me of my face momentarily next to his in an embrace, the roughness of his after-workday epidermis, the substantial musculature of his body, the manness of his being.

I’m not alone in this attachment to aroma and sensory memory. My friend Mel, after the abrupt death of his wife, kept all her clothing for a time — and for the same reason.

We all remember people in photos, but our search for such vanishing wisps of creaturely residue recalls a closer closeness. Scent, sounds, and strands of hair are the evidence of physical nearness beyond what can be seen. They retrieve the touch, sonority, and smell of the other. In this we recapture the animality of our senses and the story they tell us of our past.

Mel agreed to be interviewed by me for an oral history late in his nine-decades-or-so of life. He was something of a father figure after my dad died in 2000; one generation younger than Pops, but still not young. So I have his voice, as well as a similar four-hour video interview I did of my father.

My treasure chest also includes not precious stones, but audios of a few of those who meant and mean something to me. Among these are my adult children when they were little. Mom’s spoken words own a place there, too, coupled with a bit of her singing. Though she never acquired vocal training, the tape displays undeveloped talent.

Jews, among others, remember people symbolically with illumination, lighting a Yahrzeit candle on the anniversary of a death. They also memorialize the name of the departed by giving it to an offspring whose birth happens soon after. Thus, the name does not die, despite Goethe’s assertion that “names are like sound and smoke.”

The usual explanation for this practice is the parents’ hope that in receiving the name of an admired family member, the child will emulate in life the virtues of the deceased namesake. To a certain extent, too, it is believed the soul of the loved one lives on in the child who now bears his name.*

All this, of course, takes no account of any convoluted feelings we might have toward parents. But these memorials assume a kind of idealized love for (and from) one’s guardians. Such emotions are baked into the cake of the connection between any small child and his sire; any small child and his mum. Therapy deals with the complications, but the remembrance remains.

Judy Collins created a different tribute to her father in a semi-autobiographical song. She emphasizes the sentiment, not the factual details, in her short introduction:

 

A prominent physician with whom I went to Chicago’s Mather High School dedicated his life to medicine because of the early death of his dad to cancer. Such stories aren’t hard to find.

When my best school friends and I established the Zeolite Scholarship Fund at our alma mater, we gave awards not only in honor of deceased and living classmates, but recognized several surviving teachers. They all appeared grateful to be recalled 40 years or more after we graduated.

The most touching story I know about ways of remembering involved two “star-crossed lovers,” no longer young as in “Romeo and Juliet,” from which the leading use of those words derives.

When their relationship came to its inevitable end, the woman told her beloved she would never wear a particular dress he favored; at least until such time as they again met. Only later did he emerge from his stupefaction and realize he too had reserved shirts he connected to her; and — so he said — purchased for her. Until then he didn’t grasp why he hadn’t worn them any other time. His unconscious alone kept the secret.

As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

—–

The top image is Salvador Dali’s Portrait of My Father. It is sourced from http://www.Wikiart.org/ The Missing Painting is the work of En-cas-de-soleil and comes from Wikimediacommons.

*The quotation regarding Jewish naming practices comes from http://www.Kveller.com/

Are You Boring? Words You Should and Shouldn’t Say

I am about to make you self-conscious about what you say. Or, to improve your social stature. Following these guidelines might even make you a more engaging person. I hope the latter. After all, I am a therapist.

Counselors meet many with personal insecurity and low self-esteem. How often do we hear, “I’m so boring.” These oft times timid souls are self-effacing and therefore believed by others either uninteresting or conceited. Those who withdraw from the crowd risk the opinion that they think themselves “too good” to join in.

If you want to compel attention, first think about what you say. Many of us find a new person physically attractive from a distance. Since light travels faster than sound, he may appear bright until you hear him. Fresh ideas help you retain the outer magic.

I do not want to listen to the echo of past conversations. My brain needs dusting, along with scintillating talk as a cleanser.

Here are some words and sounds you ought not to make if you desire to enthrall:

  • Choose adverbs with care. Words like frankly, honestly, and very lose their strength with each additional use.
  • Say less rather than more. If your utterances intrigue, the other might follow-up with a question. This is called conversation.
  • Beware of the following lesson. The 20th-century composer John Cage created a piece entitled 4’33” consisting of a performer coming on stage, sitting down, and timing-out just over four-and-a-half minutes before taking his bows. As Cage wrote in a poem, “I have nothing to say and I’m saying it.”
  • Avoid overuse of superlatives: stunning, awesome, shattering .
  • Common words such as good or bad need explanation. What was good and in what way?
  • Such adjectives as unfair are overused. Another’s unfairness is your fairness. Explain yourself, but avoid whining.
  • The word hypocrite presents the same dilemma. All of us are hypocrites at some time in our lives. Maybe at any time.
  • Try to overcome beginning sentences with so or um or uh. Speaking is not a race. Your vocalization will stand in relief against the backdrop of stillness. Conceive of your voice as the foreground in a painting where silence serves as background.

  • Some phrases are empty of distinction. “At the end of the day,” comes to mind; “bottom line” is another. I attended a six-hour seminar in which the speaker, otherwise an intelligent and competent woman, used “bottom line” a few dozen times. Had she repeated those words once more I might have rushed the podium.
  • “You guys” is a frequent reference made to mixed gender groups. “You guys” might include women. “Ladies” or “ladies and gentlemen” will get you some notice and show respect. You may dislike the formality I’m suggesting. Remember, I want you to stand out.
  • Pronoun problems occur when using he, she, they, and so on. The listener might not realize to whom you are referring lest you specify the person.
  • Skip the uptalk or upspeak : try not to transform your declarative statements into questions by raising your voice at a sentence’s end. You succeed only in sounding insecure when you uptalk regularly.
  • If you believe something, say so. Feeling is not believing. One is an emotional state, the other intellectual.
  • When you don’t know a word, consult the dictionary and write the meaning down.
  • What words might you substitute for the ordinary ones? Instead of great, consider considerable, significantnotable, important, valuable or major, among others.
  • Listen to recordings of famous orators for guidance. I’m thinking of people like Martin Luther King Jr., Churchill, and Adlai Stevenson II.
  • For shock value, be honest. Unless you are a counselor, you might not recognize how much we humans hide.

As noted up top, much as I wish you more security, excessive concentration on what you are saying is a symptom of ill-confidence. Rehearse alone. Consult a thesaurus, too. Both will make real-time socialization easier.

Once you employ a few of the suggestions above, you’ll be better able to put your focus where it belongs: on the words of the other.

Consume works of the finest authors. Mark Twain, one such writer, said: “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”

Twain’s implicit suggestion to read is essential. Unless the people you wish to associate with haven’t a thought in their heads, you need to have a few and a knowledge base they lack.

All this will take effort. Courage, too. Speech is the oral gift of portraiture, like a brush placed in the hand of a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh. Think of your voice as the voice of one who sings art-songs. If you do, you will already have become more worthy of respect — both understood and remembered.

——-

Both of the pictures above are called Triple Self Portrait. The first is by Norman Rockwell, the second by Egon Schiele. They were sourced from Wikiart.org.

The World Is Coming to a Beginning

A man none of us knew invited us inside his head. A gift you don’t get every day.

The fellow wasn’t asked to. Our adult education seminar was considering the definition of morality, when all of us witnessed the lowering of the drawbridge into the new acquaintance’s psyche. What we heard from him puzzled some; foolish or innocent or honorable they thought, depending …

The question before us was how society sets rules for acceptable behavior. In ancient Athens or America’s pre-Civil War South, disapproval did not attach to keeping slaves. As southern defenders noted, slavery is in the Bible, without condemnation.

“Good” is relative. Group allegiance matters. Killing the enemy, for example, is required in war-time; not at home in times of peace.

The recent classmate appeared unremarkable at first: slender, sandy hair, and the casual dress of retired folk. Another look, however, revealed weathered features, as if living had gotten the best of him.

He’d been in the Navy in early adulthood. Once home on leave — then temporarily a civilian again — time beckoned to contact old friends and revisit the world of flirtation and love. Or so he hoped.

After several days passed, his sister asked him how that was going.

“Not so well,” he said.

“Why, what’s wrong?”

“Once I tell them I’m a sailor, they aren’t interested.”

“What don’t you tell them you’re an engineer? You are.”

“But I’m a sailor.”

Mariners of our antique time were not thought the most savory individuals. Moreover, when telling young women you are in the employ of your country, they understand you will soon be off to somewhere else: not an enticement toward prospective permanence.

One wondered, as his sister did, why he chose the disadvantageous identity over the no less accurate, more attractive one.

“I was a sailor, trained to value the corps over the self, the group over the person. I identified myself as a sailor first, as did all who served together. My particular job assignment came second. I couldn’t describe myself other than the way I did.”

One man in the class asked if that ever worked out — how he managed the dating business later on. Better after he left the military, he told us, but not the reason he left.

You might be thinking not all naval personnel live a celibate life for the service they honor. Or, you could be psychoanalyzing the ex-seaman, wondering if he used his allegiance to his mates as a way of inoculating himself against potential rejections that could otherwise have been taken as personal.

The young man didn’t use a common approach to meeting and mating, the kind we almost all employ almost all the time. We lead with our best qualities, tell our secrets and open our imperfections later, if at all. Assuming we admit them to ourselves.

A few classmates talked about this gentleman after the session. One found him too naïve and self-sacrificing; another admirable and principled, a third inflexible, impractical. Tribal allegiance came up, too, from a woman who thought the guy no different from the unthinking political types who always take their party’s side.

Perhaps you’ll be amused to hear another response. I mentioned the story to a charming, sixty-something divorcée not in school with us. When I finished, Sophia remained quiet for a bit, as if listening to an internal conversation with herself.

A moment later she asked, “Is he single?”

I said I didn’t know.

“OK. But find out. If he is, I’d like to meet him.”

——

The first image is called Sailor and Rum by Joe Machine. The one following is World War I German Sailor with an Iron Crescent (Medal). Finally, a portrait of Sailor Malan by Cuthbert Orde. All three come from Wikimedia Commons.

Letting Go of Your Therapist and Other Losses

What shall we do about the people beyond reach? I’m talking about those we’ve lost through broken friendship and fractured romance; death and the end of therapy.

September is now autumn. Never a fan of descending leaves, I’m not a fall guy in any sense, nature’s signal of the close of things.

Soon comes the small tragedy of every baseball season’s autumn-end, a loss to mimic all the others. No less than a Yale English Professor, Bart Giamatti, captured this untimely time of year:

Baseball breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

Our species loses much of value: parents, friends, and youthful bloom; the cartilage in our knees, favorite pens, and jewelry. Therapists who helped us and with whom we had an erotic transference so much like love it might have been an early-stage, “too good to be true” version of the thing itself.

Thoughts return to the peopled world more than mislaid writing tools and bracelets. Here are the ones we meet and speak with and those who live in memory. Let’s talk about the latter, persistent missing partners in imaginary conversations.

Their posthumous life is in us because it is not outside of us. Were the beloved nearby we could touch and share. We could watch, know. An internet search offers little. Some are living, but estranged or unavailable; occupied elsewhere. Others no longer of this world. Why are they often so difficult to get over?

Therapeutic wisdom — a knowledge I relied upon — points to insufficient or postponed grieving of normal losses. Counselors also deal with a specialized version of this problem when erotic transference refuses to disappear. They help the client to recognize their affection and idealization of the counselor as a kind of mistaken identity. He is not their father and, by working out the feelings about the dead parent, the therapist becomes the smaller man he is, not a stand-in on a parental pedestal. The spell breaks, a solution that works except when it doesn’t.

Mourning is essential for everyone, but for many an imprint of the departed remains. We are creatures whose flesh craves the tattoo artist’s needle, a polished steel stylus inscribing a name on the heart.

Take grieving for what it is: an emotional expression of bereavement intended to reconnect us with the world. Not a resumption of life with all wholeness restored. The ache dissipates, but not every wound vanishes.

Recognize this. On the killing fields of today’s wartime, dying soldiers cry for the same person their distant predecessors did before the walls of Troy: mother.

Were mourning 100% successful in erasing the hurt, some of our memories would also disappear. In effective lamentation they diminish, blur, or fade; unless you are so gifted or cursed to relive the bygone like a video rerun.

Bloggers and their readers write about the long-abiding soft-spot for the therapist or an inability to find a love comparable to the idealized counselor. And how many carry a hope of reunion with the absent romantic other (at least in heaven); another chance or a final meeting with a mother or brother or misplaced-lover to say what was unsaid, receive what was never heard, or listen to what was heard before — once more: a “last moment” last moment memory designed to be lasting — beating the door to its bang.

Who would turn down another day with a beloved parent, long deceased? What would happen? I can tell you my imagination of such an opportunity with my dad.

I’d break down hearing his reanimated voice. Seeing him “alive,” the same. Embracing him and on and on. The two of us said everything we needed to say in his lifetime. We shared in words the love we shared in life. There would be no extra closure of something already accomplished, as might occur with sentiments unspoken by you or to you in a past relationship.

But what then, beyond the intensity and wonderful/horrible delight as the seconds ticked away? My grief might reopen. Months after Milt Stein died 18-years-ago, the kids asked my wife, “When will dad be himself again?” Not the single time I also asked the question of myself.

If you were mourning someone still living? Another meeting risks delay or disruption of the needed recovery. Perhaps a desire for renewal, restart. More to remember and sustain one party might bring exquisite pain to the other.

Back to enamored clients again. Consider the stirring inside you — still entranced by the transference — if you talked to the doc every six months post-treatment. Is the offer of such an opportunity a kindness or an obstacle to your 100% focus on your current life partner? Or the quest for one?

Would shared phone reunions be a balm? No answers here, only questions. Many other potential problems exist in post-treatment friendship. Each of you is different and no two of us come through the process or away from it in a unison of emotion.

Perchance you, in the sorrow of ended association or love, will yet be surprised to find someone as important to you, as well-fit to your temperament and interests — to your unique experience of life — as the departed one. Perhaps you won’t, but do you need to put your effort into a new soul despite his inevitable shortfalls — to give yourself whatever chance you have for intimacy? And, if he is not found, then your energy must go somewhere external, be it grandchildren, work, creating a better world, painting, friendship, healing the sick, or educating the young; all beyond the boundaries of your own skin.

Part of what we are dealing with is not (or not only) the casualty of passionate competition or obligation, our unique imperfections or human kindness, but the nature of life. Our time is short. We stretch to grasp and hold tight selected loves. Nothing lasts, as Bart Giamatti knew.

I did not make these rules. Neither did he.

Yet even in fall-fueled dystopic moments, I’m drawn to life’s poetry. The rhythm and rhyme bind me to those I love: those who brought me laughter, beauty, and generosity; past or present. So let Giamatti’s poetic sensibility speak once more of the bittersweet game of ball he did not wish to get over:

It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.

Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.

A. Bartlett Giamatti, Take Time For Paradise: Americans And Their Games

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Bart Giamatti was not only a university professor, but spent his last few months as the Commissioner of Baseball.

The first image is A Water Drop by José Manuel Suárez from Spain. The following three are by Roger McLassus: Impact of a Water Drop on a Water Surface, Impact of a Drop of Water, and A Water Drop Detaching from a Water Tap. All were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.