Looking Through Another’s Eyes: More on How Things End

The death of a parent compels attention. Last week I described how my mother’s end allowed me an enduring and touching memory after a difficult history. But I’m not her only son, and my brothers hold different images, early and late. You should know of one I witnessed. To set the stage, I’ll say more about the Stein household we all grew up in, all with our particular vantage points.

Imagine Milton Stein forever working one of his multiple jobs and Jeanette Stein overmatched by raising all of us on her own. Sibling rivalry became inevitable. We all wanted more time and attention and a different kind of time and attention.

From dad, a focus on us as individuals and our specific interests and talents would have been welcome, instead of the distracted and generic love of a man in motion: about to leave for work, at work, back from work, or worried about making a living. He designed his life to prevent a “Second Coming” of the economic hardship he’d endured in the 1930s.

Mom’s life had no such organizing principle to supply ballast. Perhaps as a result, her internal turmoil wasn’t contained. Relating to her was a tightrope walk.

The challenge of dad’s early life was exceeded by mom’s catastrophic upbringing. Her father Leo: a charming, alcoholic bon vivant. Her mother Esther: a suspicious, hard of hearing woman who cycled between vicious criticism of her children and a claustrophobic, suffocating love of them. Perhaps worst of all, the family’s frank poverty allowed my mother only enough money for a candy bar at high school lunch. Malnutrition made her an easy target for tuberculosis, while the clan’s economic desperation and social chaos stole any sense of value other than her physical beauty.

Her papa and mine abandoned her, each in their own way. To grandpa, drunken outings grabbed him; for dad the need to work. The turmoil of a childhood household with lots of little kids left an ill-equipped mother at the helm; exactly where my mother found herself again, this time assigned the role her mom played years before.

The frustration and anger boiled over at us rather than her parents or her husband. Routine comparisons occurred. “Why aren’t you more like ______.” We all heard this and sometimes thought ourselves the least favorite child because we didn’t know the game permitted no winners. What you did well didn’t count for nearly so much as what you didn’t or did wrong.

Jealousy grew, each boy short-changed. But our mother could also be extraordinarily warm, your fiercest defender against the outside world, and heartbreakingly sad, as she struggled with her own parental and sibling relationships. Only later did I realize I got the best of both of my folks, their adored only child for most of my preschool years.

Maturity was required of me as the oldest. Job #1: take some pressure off my parents and be a protector of Ed and Jack.

Eddie was an active, eager, smart little guy, while Jack as huggable as could be. Like all younger brothers (Ed is four years my junior and one year older than Jack), Eddie wanted my time and companionship; more perhaps because of dad’s absences and Ed’s quick displacement by Jack as the youngest. But, of course, big brothers don’t have the time or want to give it. I’m sure my rejection hurt.

Our temperamental differences made things harder. I was scholarly and reserved, carrying the family banner through academia. He was active and devilish, the kid who rushed in and sometimes made a mess. We didn’t always get along.

Yet there were moments when I did the right thing. Though I was no fighter, I took on our next door neighbor when the older boy pushed Ed around. I didn’t win, but the point was made. My mother said my opponent now had a hard time combing his hair at the place on the side of his head where I landed my most forceful blow. Later an older kid from the local parochial school harassed Eddie. This time I wound up on my back. I am not in the Boxing Hall of Fame.

Superman, starring George Reeves, was one of the most popular American TV shows of our youth. Reeves (not the late Christopher Reeve) starred as the handsome, muscular hero who every little boy emulated. He fought for “truth, justice, and the American way” as the idea was understood in the 1950s. Thus, TV provided an iconic image even more potent than the comic books we read, while the alley behind the house gave you a playing field to enact whatever heroism might come to mind.

Eddie showed some particular compassion for me in the alley. I was in the seventh grade. The sport was a two vs. two touch football contest. In trying to elude a tag I dodged to the right – and slammed into a jutting garage abutment. The right side of my head made the crunching contact. I knew the contest was now no game.

Eight-year-old Ed saw me – saw what I’d done to my ballooning forehead and my blood-filling, closing eye – and wept.

When Ed and Jack got older we played in summer softball leagues in Chicago and Evanston. Ed became a fine first baseman and a power hitter who once hit three homers in a single contest. Jack, the best athlete among us, was a gifted, strong-armed, left-handed outfielder; fleet afoot and capable of slashing line-drives to all fields. He went on to become an award-winning amateur body builder and a successful business man. These were the guys you wanted on your side.

Not everything in Ed’s life came as easily as hitting a long ball. School was a hard place despite Ed’s intellectual gifts. The rules chaffed. Trouble beckoned. The wrong friends, the kind your folks tell you to avoid, weren’t helpful. Some of them would later die of their own recklessness. Accidents, suicide, murder, drugs? In a wild crowd everything is possible. The coin of a life – the heads or tails of it – turned in the air.

Finding your way is rarely easy. Ed managed – through intellect, hard work, and courage – to shed the bad influences and create a wonderful business as a home remodeler of artistic sensibility and refined craft. He is a devoted husband and father; a smart, generous, and decent man who you still want on your side.

Somehow, though full-up with sadness, the death of our parents meant an escape from the adult version of the crazy-making sibling animosity my mom never stopped fomenting. Such losses don’t always result in closer sibling relationships, what with fighting over estates and bequests. But in our family everyone played fair and reconciliation came in its wake.

Ed, Jack, and I figured out that being friends, not only brothers, was desperately important. That grudges, regardless of the cause, needed setting aside. Love, after all, matters more than just about anything. The things binding us – our memories of the folks, the time together growing up, and a desire to live by the Golden Rule – became more important than our differences.

One afternoon in our childhood, while I played in the backyard, Ed was indoors watching Superman. When the program ended, he decided the day begged for a solo flight. A white towel mom must have tied around his neck made a makeshift cape. He pushed open the window facing the backyard and got out on a ledge perhaps 12-feet off the ground, preparing for launch.

By the time I noticed him, Ed knees flexed like Superman preparing for take-off. I yelled for him to stop. He hesitated. But how to turn him around and back into the house? Before I could get upstairs Ed might crash.

A sewer manhole cover lay below the window, the place where Eddie would land, not the more forgiving grass. Mom didn’t answer my frenzied shouts.

I got underneath the ledge, braced myself, and asked Ed to jump into my arms. He didn’t take much persuasion. We both survived.

Fast forward now.

My mother lay unconscious in the hospital. She had a living will, with Ed assigned the power of attorney for healthcare. She’d told us she wanted no extraordinary measures. Mom told us all, over and over after the death of our father, she wished to die.

My brothers and I visited the hospital daily. Ed arrived first on the day in question. Mom’s physician entered her room. He wanted to perform an invasive, long shot procedure. No matter what mom might have asked for, the M.D. knew Ed had control. A conversation ensued. The doc tried to persuade Ed, then talked of Ed’s responsibility to the woman who raised him, guilted him and guilted him and guilted him. At last the “healer” ended his assault and threw up his hands, the indictment now delivered, the verdict of “bad, ungrateful son” rendered. The unstated implication was that mom’s money was more important to Eddie than her life.

Eddie walked out of the room. I’d entered the building minutes before and was strolling toward him down the hospital corridor. At a distance he was still my brother Ed; still a handsome, put-together man’s man with a steel core of toughness that could withstand anything. Wrong. He broke down in my arms.

Most of us could have rationalized conceding to the medical man. Jeanette Stein was now silent, the M.D. was not. Ed put her first, not himself.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing lots of courageous people, folks I met in my practice and elsewhere. Still, there are never enough.

When I think about Ed’s story, Ed’s last stand in defense of our dying mother, I recall his effort to be Superman at the backyard window.

I wonder, did I have to break his fall? In the last moment, Ed Stein – the real Superman who sacrificed a piece of himself in a hospital room – might have been able to fly. Yeah, compared to that, flying was easy.

——————————

For the most part, the images should be readily identifiable: two of my parents, Ed Stein in a photo I took of him hitting a double in a softball game, a cartoon of Superman, Jack Stein, the entire family around 1960 (with Jack, Gerry, and Ed from left to right), and Ed and the author in our backyard. Unfortunately, you can’t see the area of the intercepted Superman flight, which we are facing. Our garage, behind us, stands between us and the alley separating Talman Avenue from Washtenaw Avenue.

A Grateful Goodbye: The Importance of Endings

Old relationships leave a variety of marks. Dark and light, faint and bright, on the surface and below. Some fade quickly, others remain: the wistful, the love sick, the haunting. Endings matter. They impact how you remember past passions, family, and friends of all kinds.

Therapists talk about grieving, but what comes after? Is more yet to learn?

We grieve close-up, but understand at a distance, needful of time’s passage to tally the score and figure what happened. In the brightness and intensity of proximity our emotions get in the way of reason and perspective.

The people who have reappeared as memories in my life sometime took new forms, offered new lessons. One, who lived on a pedestal far too high, became more narcissistic and closer to earth with time. I understood her only after a while. But an old girlfriend is one thing, a parent something else.

Though as a little boy I was “the cream in her coffee,” mom and I lived at odds most of her life. Over time I learned to master the largest part of my animosity, fulfilled my responsibility and visited the folks without incident. She knew I came out of duty more than admiration and said so in her 70s. “You love me, but don’t like me.” I could not deny it.

Age mellowed mom some. The cutting edge of her double-sided compliments was duller, the clever complaints more effortful, less acid. After my 88-year-old dad died in the summer of 2000, mom (81 herself) was desperately unhappy. She’d long since given up on friendship, not wishing to risk closeness. The wounds of her childhood remained unaddressed. Much as Jeanette Stein could be a tough person to deal with, the emotional devastation of an alcoholic father; a paranoid, smothering mother; youthful poverty and teen-aged tuberculosis – these were her most faithful companions. They alone, along with her three sons, represented the only “relationships” left with dad gone.

In the last six-months of her too-long life (she daily prayed to my father and her mother to take her) I visited her every week. Preparation was required. I donned my armor suite, readying for the joust: criticisms aimed at me, the kids, the wife too; none of them present for the “fun” of seeing her again. Mostly I kept quiet, carried on conversation about the TV shows she watched, my brothers’ lives, searching for “safe” topics, and whatever else might pass the minutes with as little incident as possible.

The last time we talked wasn’t a remarkable event. While mom was her usual critical self, at least she was not at her worst. The next week Mrs. Stein didn’t answer the phone call made from the retirement facility’s reception desk. I took the elevator to her room, but no amount of knocking got a response. The facility manager opened her apartment for me. We discovered mom sitting upright with a cooling cup of coffee tableside. She never regained consciousness.

Not an unusual ending, then, but I haven’t told you what happened two weeks before: the second to last time I talked with her. My mother suffered from lots of physical pain even when she escaped invasion by one of her frequent headaches. Not this day. She felt “pretty good” and offered me a lightness of spirit I’d not seen in decades. We laughed. She was at ease. Her cleverness had no ill intent. The time together was an unexpected joy for me, almost a miracle: one of the most extraordinary days in my pretty interesting life. The kind of day you want to capture in a bottle and take home with you; the more poignant and precious because you can’t.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, has described us as having two “selves.” The experiencing self and the remembering self:

The experiencing self is the one that answers the question (say, during a painful event): ‘Does it hurt now?’ The remembering self is the one that answers the question: ‘How was it, on the whole?’ Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.

Kahneman continues, “The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living.”

Yet this is not the whole story, as the psychologist also tells us. If you are having surgery, your memory will be influenced by the “peak-end rule.” Both the extent of pain at its peak and the level of suffering at surgery’s end affect whether you will think back to the procedure as awful or no big deal. A benign ending can transform the experience.

Endings are like boomerangs – they keep returning. Seventeen-years this month have passed since mom died. It has become easier to “live” with her ghost and be more sympathetic to her tragic life. My brothers and I get along better and the family jokes I tell do not have the bitterness of the past.

That last good day lasted just a couple of hours. Not long, but it didn’t need to. Some people get nothing of value when relationships end. The things unsaid remain unsaid on one or both sides; the finish finishes, at best, in discontent, at worst in horror. You think you will have more time and then it’s gone. I was lucky to see my mother once again beautiful and gay, happy and happy with me.

It was not enough for the teen I was once, but by then it was enough for the adult, surely more than I expected or imagined possible.

It will do.

——-

The top photo is my mother as a young woman. The Suit of Armor is from the Carnegie Museum of Art, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Daniel Kahneman quotes can be found in his wonderful book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

What Does It Mean to be “Psychologically Minded?”

A good observer of the human condition notices some fellow creatures who don’t get it. Several are obtuse. Many can be described as too logical. Others naïve or unworldly. More than a few don’t think through what they do and why, dismissing opinions different from their own. Their certainty of everything betrays their awareness of nothing. Large numbers can’t recognize the obvious ingredients in their complicated emotional stew.

They don’t even hear the stewpot boiling over.

I’d characterize such folks as lacking a certain “psychological mindedness.” This is my own term of art, not a phrase with a definition understood and accepted in the field of mental health. Still, I’ll try to describe what constitutes such a state of mind and why it might be useful to us. If you are psychologically minded, several of these qualities will be characteristic of you:

  • All your decisions are not understood by you. Mystery resides in everyone. We are each some combination of genetic programming, the formative influence of our parents, education, experience, and choice. Emotion and reason both play their part. Should you be so unwise as to claim understanding of all your motives, you are mistaken.
  • Illogic troubles your thought process and you know you aren’t alone. You don’t insist your every idea is structured like an architectural work of art, nor hold others to this standard. Were logic alone in charge, you’d be a robot. We arrive at some of our most vehement opinions intuitively and only then find justifying reasons with blinding speed, a process invisible to the internal eye.
  • You are aware mom and dad were imperfect and don’t dismiss their effect on you, for good or ill, probably both.
  • You don’t believe your achievements are the singular product of your special genius and effort. We are interdependent, all of us: impacted by the color of our skin, the economic and social circumstances of our birth, the presence or absence of societal and political unrest, the power of love and loneliness; and by a helping or dismissive hand, not to mention the accident of our appearance. You are on board with John Donne’s poetic truth, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” As my friend, Life in a Bind, suggests, “you think about yourself in the world from a slightly more distanced stance than others do, and with a longer lens stretching back into the past.”
  • You know grieving takes its own time and is best done with one or more faithful witnesses, not by the toughness required for bullet-biting; or burying sadness in perpetuity. Others are not advised by you to “get over it.”
  • Unfairness, you think to yourself, can be subjective and therefore a matter of perspective.
  • To a degree you know the danger of being hostage to the opinion of others.
  • You don’t “blame the victim” by asserting you’d have been smarter in a difficult situation: made a better choice, demonstrated more resilience, or maintained a higher moral standard. Without experience in the same circumstance, in truth, you cannot predict what you’d have done.

  • You recognize your lack of “all the answers.” You are humble in the face of the things you don’t understand and accept the need to learn more. You grasp at least a bit of the human necessity for continual transformation as you age and face unexpected situations requiring new solutions.
  • You don’t reflexively condemn others when something goes wrong, instead demonstrating occasional willingness to look into the mirror. Nor do you make automatic assignment of blame to yourself, realizing, at least, the cost of doing so, even if you cannot yet stop.
  • Once in a while you ask, “Why did I do that” or “Why did I say that?”
  • To paraphrase Life in a Bind again, psychological mindedness permits insight into mind traps: the alteration of perception when gripped by defenses like projection. What feels real emotionally may not be true.
  • To your dismay, you are cognizant of the human capacity to rationalize almost anything, murder included. Perhaps it has dawned on you that you too rationalize. You regret another painful truth: even wonderful and wonderfully talented people possess a dark side.
  • While some challenges are uncomfortable to face, you believe avoidance of a direct glance or assertive action might be a costly life strategy.
  • You are a part-time observer of yourself, not obsessed with yourself. You are neither totally inward-focused, unable to get out of your own head; or totally outward-focused – mindlessly “in the moment” – never reckoning with who you are. You agree with Socrates (“The unexamined life is not worth living”), but not so far as to spend all your time in examination, avoiding action and risk. If you cannot yet venture forth, your realize you must find a way.
  • You either play or wish to learn how to play.
  • Self-righteousness is something you avoid.
  • You understand that openness is double-edged: the pursuit of intimacy means guaranteed risk in search of potential reward. You opt for openness, at least in theory.
  • From time to time you think about your default tendencies. Perhaps you are inclined to approach or avoid, argue or make peace, court danger or play it safe, etc. On occasion you even think your strengths (and the penchant to overplay them) are your weaknesses.

If you recognize several of these qualities in yourself, you are a good psychotherapy candidate, assuming you muster the courage to gamble something great for something good. Your psychological mindedness is now and again misunderstood by friends who do not view the world with the nuance you do.

Keep going and growing. The world then becomes a bit more explicable and your understanding of yourself enlarged. The planet will take on colors never noticed on the black-and-white globe you used to inhabit. Your perspective may also attract new acquaintances.

Some will think you unnecessarily troubled, others conclude you are wise.

No free lunch.

Choose.

The image of The Human Mind comes from Wikimedia Commons via Flicker. No author is identified. The second Wikimedia photo is a Psychic Apparition. It comes from the collection of Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums, from a series called Psychic Photography From a New Angle.

Who Helps You Grieve?

You lose a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a spouse or a parent. Death, breakup, estrangement – all terrible. If you are wary of a therapist, who helps you grieve? This tends not to be a thought-through decision. You are in pain, if not overwhelmed. I hope to address here some of the complications of your choice or choices – steer you, too, toward who might be best.

  • Complete Self-Reliance. This is the most challenging and dangerous choice. You have lost a dear person and, perhaps, trust in the virtue of attachment. You fear losing the supportive individual, too, through death, relocation, or misunderstanding; maybe driving them away with your desolation. Grieving alone is a self-alienating process. The parts of you press against each other. Your insides ache, but the world goes by as if nothing happened. Tears are not enough unless they are witnessed by someone sympathetic.
  • A Person in the Midst of the Same Grief. Should a child go to a parent who is also bereft if the child’s father (the mother’s spouse) is the one who is gone? The choice is natural, but the mother has nothing to give. Reverse the situation: should the mother go to the adult child seeking solace when the sting from which the daughter suffers is just as intolerable? Each needs her own support. That said, a parent or an adult offspring might feel responsible and obligated to give aid, and guilty if she does not. Both are adrift. Why do we expect one person to be the life-saving lifeguard when both people are drowning? We go to therapists because they are not suffering our loss. They offer the therapeutic distance the bereft cannot. Only with such remove from personal pain can comfort be provided as needed.
  • Friends or Relatives Who are Judgemental. Some people will blame you. What did you do to drive your spouse away? Why aren’t you going to church and relying on God? You mean you’re not over it yet? You need to move on, start dating again, get a life. Some of these “friends” do not want to consider their own vulnerability to tragedy and devastation. Easier to shun you or blame you. Surprisingly, a friend who has “been through it” might be less sympathetic than one who has not.
  • A New or Potential Love Interest Who Offers Support. Pardon me for being cynical here, but one must be careful of opportunists. Even those sincere in their desire to offer a hand to hold may be unaware of the extent to which they hope for a relationship with you. I’ve seen this opportunism in both sexes. By itself, not necessarily a bad thing, unless your vulnerability finds you making a poor selection of a new lover, choosing the distraction of a rebound romance to salve your faltering heart.
  • A Friend Who is Available For Only Part of the Job. She is a good choice if she is also sympathetic. Such a person might limit contact, but be fully present when able to offer herself. These friends can’t do the complete job of helping you grieve, but a part of it.
  • An Array of Supportive Friends. If you know such people, some of whom might be in your religious community, then you can go to two or three who are free and solid enough to take on a bit of your hurt. By distributing the weight of your pain among a few people, burn-out of any one of them is less likely.
  • A Support or Survivors Group. Especially if you add such a group to the friends with whom you talk, this can provide a means to the end you seek.
  • An Individual Therapist. Again, the various choices are not mutually exclusive. With the availability of a few people to witness your pain and a dedicated professional hand, you now have a system of reattachment to the human community. A counselor has treated other bereft souls before you, the training to help you along, and the aforementioned distance from your loss.

Nothing about this process is easy. No perfect solution exists. Time helps. Love helps. People help. Work helps, too.

The sun has set on your life, but, as Ecclesiastes tells us, the sun also rises.

The first photo is of The Kiel Canal, in the German State of Schleswig-Holstein. Finally, The Sun Rising Through the Clouds, by Moise Nicu, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Good Man is Hard to Find: Remembering Bob Calsyn

Life is a funny thing. It had been a while since I thought about Bob Calsyn, my old graduate school friend. But then I recognized that a post I wrote five years ago was getting visited more than usual today. Clearly, the fifth anniversary of Bob’s death on September 21, 2012 isn’t going unnoticed. He deserves notice and remembrance. I’ve not known a better man.

Memory has a different place in our lives than in ancient times.

The pre-literate Greeks of Homer’s day could not apply the balm of eternal life to their troubled psyches. They had no notion of the heaven Christians believe in, no sense of reincarnation such as Hindus expect, no Muslim vision of paradise, no anticipation of a reunion with relatives and friends who had predeceased them. Instead, death led to a trip to Hades, the underworld, where existence was a pale and not very attractive shadow of earthly life, not something to be eagerly awaited.

Bob would not have liked Hades. He lived for the sunlight, not the shadows.

The life of the pre-literate Greeks was painfully short. Even at the turn of the last century, around 1900, the average American survived only about 50 years. The brevity of our time above ground was certainly known to the ancients.

Greek literature and philosophy point to two driving concepts that motivated those men. (And I speak of men only, because women were extraordinarily disadvantaged, seen as having almost no function other than sex, companionship, rearing children, and producing domestic handicrafts). Honor and glory were what men sought. Honor tended to come in the form of goods, precious metal, slaves, concubines, and the like; in other words, mostly material things or things that could be counted or displayed or used.

Sort of like today, perhaps you are saying to yourself. In our world, honor is conferred by status and material things, too – the size of your house, the amount of money in your bank account, a trophy spouse, the car or cars you drive, a gorgeous vacation home, etc.

Glory (the Greek word kleos) was another matter. It took the form of reputation or fame continuing beyond death. And, since there was no written word, you and your accomplishments had to be sufficiently great to generate discussion, song, and story once you were gone. No one was going to write a book about you, since there was yet no Greek alphabet.

The point being, Bob deserved more than a little of the old-style glory. Telling you his tale once again is the best I can do and the least I can do.

As you might imagine, I have lots of feelings today. If you read this post before I hope you will take another look. And, if you haven’t, then his admirable life will be a fresh experience for you. For those of you, especially my female readers who have been disappointed with my gender, perhaps Bob’s life will give you a bit of hope to keep looking. Regardless, maybe knowing him a little will make you a better person, as knowing him a lot made me. Here is the link: Bob Calsyn

What Comes after Grieving? The Challenge of Saying “Yes” to Life

A formal, sarcastic, middle-aged woman, she was not an especially promising therapy candidate. Though very bright, one of her problems was her penchant for closing doors. She needed escape from the confined space of her life, but when possibilities arose, “no” was her usual answer. Even if no joy resided within her narrow neighborhood of known places, the dismissed opportunities existed outside her psychological comfort zone. Instead, she went to work, dutifully visited her adult children, saw her siblings on holidays, and spent lots of time reading and doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku, at which she was adept. Her life was safe, her job secure, her unhappiness guaranteed.

The lady thought she had all the answers, but her sadness suggested otherwise. Widowed for some time, her muted grief could be traced to guilt over failing an abusive husband, not his absent kindness. Until the grieving was completed, however, no manner of persuasion convinced her she was now free. Her fortress against hurt from others – a shelter of  fixed routine, avoided chances, and minimized risk – was self-created.

A luxury room in hell is still in a place you won’t like.

Some therapy clients feel as though the past has stained them indelibly, made them unacceptable. Or that they are tainted, marked “beyond repair” soon after birth. They believe unacceptability pervades everything they are, everything they touch. My patient was such a one.

The therapist faces many challenges here. He must, of course, win the trust of someone untrusting, accept the sarcasm and negativity, understand the part “attitude” plays in defending the individual, and realize the presence of an injured soul under the porcupine spines. A grieving process will take the time it takes, until past losses recede and guilt is shed, the stain less visible. At some point the patient must begin to reenter the world or, perhaps, enter for the first time.

A scary thing.

Life is like a book we write in indelible ink. We can’t erase the past, even though some imagine the ink is still wet and marks everything they touch with words written far back: words like bad, selfish, mean, stupid, and unattractive. Those who think this way believe the pejoratives live inside of them. They attribute superhuman powers to new acquaintances. People will, they are sure, quickly read the words through the transparency of face and body.

The book, however, has many blank pages left. The virgin parchment remains to be filled in, as pristine for you as for another. What will you write? Yes, you possess a history, but how much of it must you endlessly reread and then repeat and recopy on the unfilled paper? How much of the book’s future story must tell the same tale only with different people?

The empty spaces ahead are untainted, pure. If you keep looking back, you will keep getting the wet ink on your fingers, your forearms, your future. The new leaves will be smudged. Thus, the lady with whom I began this story anticipated an unsatisfying, injurious path, closed the gate to it, and only accomplished a reliving of her past in places offering no novel possibilities.

She needed a change of clothes, a shower, even a fresh start at work or new friends; maybe without her siblings or with a changed attitude toward them.

If you are like this patient, too quick to say “that won’t work or “I can’t do that,” well, as the wry aphorism tells us, “If you do what you’ve done, you’ll get what you’ve gotten.”

The art of therapy is, in part, the art of managing the client’s transition from shedding the past to his trying out a new version of himself: a kind of gradual debut of a person partially transformed. Some of the transformation happens in the working through of past injuries, but much develops, too, in taking on the world again. There is danger if you ignore your history, but an equal amount if you don’t venture out.

Each of us carries some version of the book of our life’s saga. For those least fortunate, the incomplete autobiography is heavy, filled with the weight of tragedy. Others own a lighter volume, but not free of disappointments, mistakes, and the harm nature or fate or other people have inflicted.

The past is a place for reluctant therapeutic visits or fond memories. In the middle of life, however, many blank pages still need filling.

The patient I mentioned eventually ventured out of those phases – those pages – already read and reread, lived and relived. She entered the world of the living again, where history is made. She noticed anew a man she’d known for a few years, someone who admired her from a distance. My client took the risk of taking him seriously, instead of treating him with her standard defense: a witty, but sarcastic distancing.

If any of us are to find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we must first leave the house in search of it. We remake ourselves, in part, by taking tentative steps, not by waiting until we are fully changed. Change is in the action. Change is never finished, always moving, forever incomplete.

Perhaps it is too much to say my client found her innocence again, but in a way she did, and the joy of a second first love. She and her admirer married.

Life does not always permit a happy ending, nor do we get to write our whole story free of fate jostling our hand as we move the stylus.

Still, the blank pages beckon.

The top photo is called, Afraid of Water, by Jaka Ostrovršnik

One Holiday, Two Americas: Memorial Day Thoughts

Some of our fathers and brothers, even our sisters and aunts, served in wartime. Some serve now. Perhaps you too.

Today is the day we honor the fallen in all the many conflicts of this, our country.

Can two Americas fit into a holiday designed for one?

Thus do the two Americas array themselves: those for whom service is a calling and those for whom it is an economic necessity; those powerful and those without prospects; those respected and those afraid; those with fat wallets and those with empty purses; the few who are part of our volunteer army and the majority who choose not to be.

When my father did his duty in World War II, walking the Champs-Élysées on the first Bastille Day after the liberation of Paris, there was such a thing as military conscription: able bodied young men were required to participate. In post-war Germany, as part of the occupying Allied forces, he related the following in an October 19, 1945 letter to my mother:

We have two colored boys in our convoy who were carrying our postal equipment. When we went to supper … the Sargent who ran the mess hall made them eat in a separate room. The colored boys were fighting mad for which I can blame them little. I complained about this treatment to the mess Sargent, who said that the First Sargent made the rule. I went to the latter and told him off plenty (my dad was a Staff Sargent). His answer was that I didn’t have to eat in the mess hall either if I didn’t like the rules.

So this is for what we fight. I finally talked to the colored boys and pacified them somewhat.

Some of us thought we were beyond the racial animus of a time 70 years past. Not just the discrimination, but the idea of discrimination. Still, no matter our domestic troubles, we must honor the fallen. My father, who served but did not die in service, would be troubled at our regression; yet he would honor the fallen, as we all should, amid the burgers and bratwurst and beer we inhale today. In this, at least, we can still be one country, even if the ritual unites us only for a few hours.

I wrote some of this seven years ago. Other parts are new:

If you are unhappy about the polarization of our society, think about the differences institutionalized by the volunteer army’s creation. However much good was achieved by the elimination of conscription, surely the absence of shared sacrifice contributes to the ease with which we oppose our fellow-citizens.

No longer does the USA pull together in the way possible during World War II, “the Good War.” In part, “the Good War” was good because enough people believed in the values for which the USA fought, knowing their children, husbands, and brothers would defend those same values with their lives; and it was good because those at home (regardless of class) shared in the rationing of goods, the terror of having loved ones in harm’s way, the heartache of their absence, and a preoccupation with the daily progress of the conflict.

The soldiers shared something more, and more widely than the smaller fighting force of today. Men of different religions, regional accents, political opinions, and ethnicities depended on each other for their survival and discovered the “other” could be depended on, laughed at the same jokes, and partook of the common fear and dedication all brought to the war effort. Even though military segregation deprived brave blacks and Japanese Americans of the opportunity for such camaraderie except with men of the same color, the nation benefited from the portion permitted. The soldiers benefited by the love and mutual reliance of those in the same foxhole. Our fathers and grandfathers were woven together in a way we are not today.

These thoughts occurred to me as I listened (on CD) to the book Final Salute by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jim Sheeler. The volume is about the officers who inform families they have lost a loved one; and of the families who suffer the unspeakable pain of the death of a son, a husband, a wife, a brother, or a sister; a dad or a mom.

Several survivors become your acquaintances in this narrative, as well as the warriors — the Marines — who died serving our country. And you will get to know Major Steve Beck, a Marine who delivers a message nearly as shattering as the projectile that killed their loved one.

Major Beck and the Marines live by the creed of leaving no comrade behind. Consistent with this value, Major Beck leaves no family behind, providing comfort and support long after the knock on the door that changes everything, creating a “before and after” without end.

I wish I had the words to convey what is in this book. I don’t. I only will say it is plainly written, eloquent in its simplicity, aching in its beauty, profound in its impact. It does not make melodrama of what is already poignant enough. Rest assured you will contemplate war, any war, differently after reading Final Salute; unless, of course, you are a member of the “other America,” the one fighting the wars and sending its loved ones into conflict. If you belong to the bereft group within this group, then there is nothing here you do not already know at a level too deep for words.

To those who have lost just such a one as the young men portrayed in Final Salute, I can only give my condolences to you and your kin.

We — those of us in the non-fighting America, those of us for whom the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are abstractions — perhaps remain too comfortable, detached from something of desperate importance: the duty done far from home in our stead by the children of other people. And removed and distant from how the “best and brightest” of their families risk and sometimes give up everything they hold dear.

For such families, the human cost never fully goes away, for there is no inoculation against the plague of war, nor any cure.

They are out there, these inhabitants of “the other America.”

We walk past them unaware …

Once a year we give their departed a day of remembrance, if that’s what you call taking an extra day off from work, singing the National Anthem, looking at the maimed soldiers standing at attention, and then forgetting why we sang before our bottoms touch the seats. The words “play ball,” don’t quite capture a sentiment of honor or atonement, do they?

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All the images above are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. 1. “Vice Admiral Scott Swift, Director of Navy Staff holds Savannah Wriglesworth of Bowie, Maryland during a group photo with families of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) before taking a tour at the Pentagon May 23, 2014. The children of fallen U.S. service members toured the Pentagon seeing different exhibitions from the Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force including Klinger the horse. Klinger has served at more than 5,000 military funerals and has a book published about him called “Klinger: A Story of Honor and Hope” and is often a warm and comforting face for the children to see when making their final good-byes.” (Department of Defense photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo). 2. and 3. The work of Allstrak. 4. “Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt looks on during the singing of the National Anthem before his squad’s Memorial Day Major League Baseball matchup against the San Diego Padres at Chase Field in Phoenix, May 26, 2014. U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Brandon Kidd, right, was on hand to represent the United States Marine Corps during pre-game dedications.” (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Tyler J. Bolken).