Entanglement of Minds: A Forward Look Back at Psychoanalysis

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
 — Samuel Beckett

There’s a well-known joke about a guy who prays month after month, year after year, to win the lottery. Finally, his frustrated God answers him: “Buy a ticket!” Something in that describes my gamble on psychoanalysis.

Could something that looks so ordinary — two people talking, or rather one person doing most of the talking — make a difference? I’d white-knuckled my way through years of depression, secret overeating, and a relive-it-and-revise-it mental loop that turned ordinary social encounters exhausting. College had been a blur of obsessive study and off-campus jobs, habits I carried over into start-up businesses where long hours and no weekends were rewarded. A glorious wreckage of relationships had confirmed that pleasure in my body was real and ecstatic — and available only if real intimacy was not. I choked back longings so well I forgot what was stuck in my throat. One part of me watched it all from a distance with growing alarm. Then bulimia entered the picture, laced with thoughts of suicide.

I had tried dream-oriented talk therapy in my early twenties. The therapist, new to her craft, confirmed what I already believed: my problems were too much. I was too much. After many months, I had arrived at a persistent image of a smooth black wall. I’m so close to it I can’t even focus on it. It’s so perfect, there’s no way in. After a valiant effort on both our parts, she suggested I try medication and sincerely wished me well.

 After another dozen years and as many attempts to untangle my haywire, I sat across from Dr. S. I was surviving, but words had dried up — a real problem for an editor and reporter of cultural trends. After a few sessions, I was writing again. But instead of feeling done, it felt like a beginning. If every symptom is a story, I had so many more to tell, and this might be the person who could listen.

Fourteen years later, two phases from two coasts, we ended the work. That process itself took about a year. A long time? It took as long as it took. Yet after all that, I found it hard to explain what exactly we had done in all those hours. Had we succeeded? Was it worth it?

To Begin at the End

The idea to end treatment started like an itch. It wasn’t that I felt cured, a wrongheaded notion to begin with. It wasn’t the money, though my inner economist could always enlist that rationale (health insurance had long since bowed out). In a culture that privileges speed and statistics, why would anyone choose a long-term process with no guarantees? Psychoanalysis is for navel-gazing, over-actualizing narcissists, right?

I had by no means run out of things to say. Just the opposite; I could imagine still talking thirty years on. That gave me pause. Had my hope in the process become hopeless overdependence? Was it time to leave the nest? Was it time to break up? Was this less about ending than simply stopping, abrupt and graceless, the way I was most familiar with saying good-bye?

All of the above. None of the above.

Dr. S. sometimes referred to my “treatment.” I never liked the word until the second phase of our work, after I traded the Northeast for Los Angeles, a new job and fresh start after losing a mentor to suicide. Then, two weeks supporting my hundred-year-old great aunt through what hospice termed “active dying,” a process both brutally practical and surreal as her body, mind, and ineffable parts proceeded at different rates to the exit. Without thinking about it, I took the stance of attentive focus I knew from analysis, open to her fast-evolving needs, tangible and intangible. I had some inkling about her fixation on doors. Afterward, I knew only one place where I could really talk about it.

Dr. S. suggested we try Skype, and we resumed the treatment. By then, I had taken a few courses in screenwriting (when in Rome) and liked the term’s resonance: a treatment is one step up from an outline but less than a full script. Partial but not incomplete. A stage of development. (Film critic Elvis Mitchell’s KCRW radio show The Treatment is aptly named. He’s known for astonishing his guests—directors, actors, cinematographers, writers — with insights about the psychological themes running through their bodies of work.)

After our last session, Wednesday felt like a hole in the calendar. One week, I locked myself out of the house. Another week, I lost my keys. I missed the anchor of our practice. And it is a practice, in the way yoga and prayer are practices. After so many years, Dr. S. knew my dream vocabulary as well as — and often better than — I did. He could hear threads running among images and memories, through moods and mundane details. Even more, he had a knack for hearing what I was not saying, feelings and thoughts conspicuous by their absence. He would invite back what I had exiled. In our work, those silences eventually had the most to say.

Beginning to Speak

Feeling free to speak is no small feat. First, I had to be willing to show up and be seen. My early journal entries remind me that I regularly called to cancel appointments. “Okay,” Dr. S. would say. “I’ll keep the hour open if you change your mind.” He heard my conflicting currents: opening a window while anxiously barring the door. Wanting to be seen — without being looked at. In the end, I always showed up, as did he.

Trust was skittish. I became fascinated by the double doors to his office, part of the soundproofing design that included baffled (!) walls. In myth, thresholds are dangerous places. Transitions require care. From public to private, rules change. Radically different possibilities come into play.

From the waiting area, I would hear the muffled whoof of air unsandwiched when the inner door opened. Then the outer door swung open. If it swung slowly, a patient would emerge. If it swung swiftly, it was the doctor, leaning out with a typically friendly smile, a host’s invitation to this thing we were about to attempt. A thing that for me was at first a performance, later a tightrope walk, and at the end something like swimming underwater with no need of oxygen.

Behind me, he would close the outer door — separating private from public. Then he would close the inner door — separating the everyday private from the formal intimacy that requires no small talk. The psychoanalytic space.

At session’s end, he would open the inner door and stand by, as if to see me off on a trip. His full presence door to door, entrance to exit, made me aware how often my mind leaves a room ahead of my feet. I’d make a last comment, linger a few seconds, then open the outer door and break the seal on the hour.

Working over Skype, I missed that ritual of entrance and exit. He suggested that, while he initiated each call, I should be the one to end it. I began sending a short email afterward — the lingering thought. Those details restored a familiar rhythm and texture of attention to our work.

Unlike the popular image of a patient in analysis, I was never on the couch. In our first meeting, he indicated a chair opposite his. I sat there but eyed the couch, waiting for the day I would go horizontal. I occasionally looked at the ceiling, just to get a sense of the view. I thought, that’s when we really begin.

But Dr. S. had quickly sensed that seeing and being seen were a core of my story. Maybe it was my usual sidelong glance, a retreat to inspect the sky while his words turned to static. Our mutual gaze, the way it held or broke, would be as crucial as our words. He also talked more with me than is usual in strict analytic practice (which is not to say he spoke much at all).(1)

Over the years, words and glances piled up, but freedom to speak has nothing to do with quantity. If there’s anything we know in our Information Age, it’s that more words do not equal more meaning. Fluency is not always intelligent. Intellect is not always wise or kind.

Friends joked that I was turning therapy into a career. Or was it a joke? Was my analysis a roundabout wish to be an analyst? Around this time, a highly intelligent, multi-degreed friend attempted suicide. She was hospitalized for several weeks and emerged with a new purpose: she would become a psychiatrist.

This clarity seemed to give her relief. I was happy for her — and envious. While I sank deeper into my mental mud, she was rising heroically above or at least moving through with unstoppable determination. (Today, she’s a practicing psychiatrist.)

I was also alarmed. Academic rigor had been my cover for chaos. A stellar report card and schedule bursting at the seams were my sleight of hand. No one looked too hard past such achievement. Allied with professors, I sidestepped feeling alien among my real peers. I mastered material while failing at life.

So, naturally, I first approached therapy like a research project. Why am I like this? How can I fix it? Problem-solution. But accumulations of knowledge and applications of theory are not the same as understanding. They are no substitute for direct experience of the unheard, unseen, unexpressed self (or selves). That’s what I needed most. Those delicate, sometimes terrifying moments that are easily obliterated by hovering notions of progress or — worse — productivity. Had I sought accomplishment over experience, I imagine I would today be an analyst with a great deal of craft but no possibility of art.

One day, I slid over one too many unknowns with glib answers and confident conclusions. Dr. S. saw through it: “Don’t confuse uncertainty with incompetence.” He was speaking of mine and his own, not to mention the process itself.

The Work Gets Real

Psychoanalysis is the one place you can say with no irony, “But enough about me. What do you think about me?” I’m usually the one who lets other people talk, so at first it was an uncomfortable spotlight.

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I was less prepared for the shadow of that spotlight, a certain humiliation I felt in the very nature of the analyst-analysand relationship. Trust is usually built (and betrayed) in relationships through back-and-forth disclosures. But the fact is, I will never know Dr. S. the way he knows me. That’s a condition of the gig. He learned my secrets. I learned his taste in ties.

In one way, that simplified things. As he remained a relatively blank slate, my own dramas had more space to emerge, with him as stand-in for the dynamics I needed to explore. But on such intimate ground with no mutual disclosure, what was stopping this from being voyeurism on his part, exhibitionism on mine?

The queasiness of that question grew as my defenses loosened in some areas and doubled down in others. I had no desire to binge and purge anymore, but I had developed a troubling fascination with BDSM pornography. And though that interest was a secret, I apparently reflected it in my demeanor. A colleague spontaneously dubbed me “editorial dominatrix.”

Dr. S. reminded me, “Sometimes we guard a symptom because we need to tell a story about it.” So what was the message in that flip-flop of domination and submission, two sides of the same coin? Why could I not look away?

We talked about the function of perversions’ shock value, how a lurid surface distracts attention from an underlying wish that is more threatening — and more ordinary. While I was busy judging myself, Dr. S. stepped back from both spectacle and moralizing to open up a third perspective. From that stance beyond either/or, we could begin to tease out the real subject. (Locating that third perspective has become a life skill.)

Navigating my sideshows, Dr. S. returned us again and again to bedrock that became frustratingly familiar but each time incrementally more livable. Instead of straight-line progress, our work spiraled. (Freud saw links between the practice of psychoanalysis and poetry. In this experience of recursivity, I felt a shock of recognition at poet Richard Howard’s pithy observation that “prose proceeds; verse reverses.”) I did learn this: what I couldn’t allow myself to say, think, feel, entertain, expect, or hope for in that room didn’t stand a chance of happening anywhere else.

Misunderstandings were inevitable, a fact of language’s imprecision. Not bugs but features of the process. Not misunderstandings but meaning. What? That’s not what I said. But maybe that’s what I meant.

In one dream, to escape pursuers I had to merge a 2D compass drawing and its directions into a 3D map. I’d be saved if I could merge the perspectives, but I didn’t know how. Week after week, Dr. S. heard and saw much that I couldn’t or wouldn’t. “Did I hear you right?” he’d ask. Or say, “Let’s try that again . . . let me put it another way.” Expression is one thing, but clear communication requires astute listening and respectful persistence. And in the work (as in life), it had to go both ways. I usually spoke out of the top of my head. Only later did my voice start coming from someplace lower, gut rumbling and heart seeping.

Led by my dreams, life history emerged when it needed to. I was grateful not to recount memories like spadework, those stories I’d told to myself about myself until repetition made them unassailable. The ritual of analysis brought that history alive in a way I hadn’t allowed. I began to understand what biologist Gerald Edelman meant: “Every act of perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”(2)

I cleared away Cosmo-quiz answers and self-help stereotypes. I got better at respecting clues that showed up like graffiti in my dreams, thick and colorful. I was working out some intangible, bunged-up constipation. It was dark, and it often stank. We teased out a clutch of knots and deadlocks that stretched back as far as I could remember: A body that was too much for me while my mind went about its business. Disconnections that heightened depression, took shape as compulsion, were mystified by fetish and masked by productivity. Either/or thinking that only dug the ruts deeper. I went to Dr. S. because I couldn’t write, but what was really at stake was nothing less than my life.

Something Happens

Session parameters — physical boundaries, time constraints, fees charged — created restriction and urgency that made meaningful work possible. The parts of me that felt like “too much” began to fit. The psychoanalytic space, it seemed, could contain me, as well as him. Then we were both on the line, as analysand and analyst. We were both in it, as human beings.

He showed up in my dreams: as long grass on a riverbank I grabbed to keep from being swept away; as a peacock (those neckties!); as a beloved celebrity; as a talking lizard; as a man who points me to a construction site where I’ll be suspended in a tangle of wire over a large hole. I can’t get out yet, but I’m not falling in.

I don’t know what Dr. S.’s experience of our work was in the moment (any more than I know what you’re thinking now). Closing the session, he would offer an interpretation, a thought I could take with me. Never a grand pronouncement. More like a curation of the hour’s particulars into farther-reaching terms. An angle I hadn’t considered before, like moving a familiar vase to a different spot, so it could be noticed anew.

I worked to hang on to what happened in those hours, but our topics and his interpretation could easily evaporate. If they did, I knew we were getting somewhere. Would they disappear while I waited for the elevator? At the first intersection? When I opened my front door?

What I forgot turned out to be as useful as what I remembered. Recalling those ideas, elegant fragments still too unwieldy for my mind, became an exercise in recalling myself. That involved not panicking at the blankness, instead trusting that what was necessary for me to know would find its way back. Those thoughts I wasn’t ready to hear did return again (and again) until I could hold them reliably in my mind. It took a lighter touch and more self-respect than I was used to.

Constructing his thoughts, Dr. S. would glance out the window or at the painting on the wall behind my chair. He was putting something together. Attentive but loose. Composed but in motion. He wasn’t short on psychoanalytic theory, but instead of a doctor cutting a prescription to size, he seemed to be doing what Miles Davis advised: “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” Analysis was, like Claude Debussy’s definition of music, “the space between the notes.”

It was a sort of focused drift or dérive through the landscape of overlapping minds. We listened for multiple meanings: wholly, holey, and holy. Disgusted and discuss dead. Defective stilettos in a dream signaled badly healed.

Context matters. Silences. Words and syntax. Slips of mind and tongue. Interruptions, the feel of the chair, the view. A glance away, into distance or sidelong. What matters is between and among, where the as-yet-unspeakable accumulates.

Those sessions were the first time I was able to look at my own loose ends without a knee-jerk desire to tidy them. Orderliness was essential to my day job, but in this work that skill got in the way. I finally understood the old joke about a man whose wife thinks she’s a chicken. He would be happy to have her cured, except that they need the eggs.

Myth of the Big Breakthrough

At some point, friends began asking when I would be done. Therapy in the movies always builds to a big breakthrough, the perfect tap of the chisel that reveals the masterpiece. But that model of progress was part of the problem, with “perfect” the enemy of “good” as well as “good enough.”

I had gotten over the urge for a diagnosis, quieting my inner bureaucrat who wanted an official name for my problem. On the way to Dr. S.’s office in Cambridge, I would pass a corner where a guy usually hung around talking to himself. Angry. Imploring. Frustrated. One day I asked Dr. S. what was wrong with him.

“He’s crazy.”

What? Years of practice in psychiatric hospitals and “crazy” is all you got?

“Is that a technical term?” I tried to joke.

He shrugged. We moved on.

It took me years to recognize the humanity in that reply. As a passerby in that guy’s world, I had no business diminishing him to a diagnosis. “Crazy” keeps him in the human family; “crazy” is something we all (if we’re honest) can relate to. And I suspect Dr. S. knew that in entertaining curiosity about that man with too much of himself on his hands, I was really entertaining a fear about myself.

From the outset, Dr. S. understood that the tangible problems I brought into the room were code for my real subject matter, infinitely more slippery and deeply rooted. Bulimia as code for (among other things) certain refusals. Bondage as code for (among other things) a desire to protect others by restraining myself. Thoughts of suicide as code for (among other things) my longing for change.

In suspending the fact of the matter, he took us sideways. Through associations, we began to engage the conversation I had been trying and failing to have with myself for decades. My tired refrains began to fade, revealing the elaborate strategies I devised to get in my own way. What began to emerge was what I really believed about myself, without political correctness and well-meant pantomimes of the person I wished I was. I was getting down to the messy personal ideologies that truly defined my desires and set my limits.

But that sounds too neat. When I think of what happened in analysis, I think not of progress but of process. The charged silence when words hung in the air, like the shimmering quality of Gamelan music, a result of instruments being slightly — deliberately — out of tune. I think of my neighbor’s hound dog howling at sirens because she hears what I can’t.

Some frequencies just aren’t available in the usual pitch of the day. The work of analysis was a way to hear them, talk about and talk with them. More of myself came into play.

Psychoanalyst Bonnie Litowitz uses the term “entanglement of minds” to describe what happens between an analyst and analysand.(3) She points out that psychoanalytic theory itself does not have adequate terminology for this interaction. The descriptions of psychoanalysis have not adequately captured what happens in the room.

Dr. S.’s and my entanglement of minds was powerfully disruptive and creatively freeing. This depended on him being both guide and participant, always inside and outside the conversation, consciously willing to be implicated in our analytic drama. Only then did verbal ping-pong change states. Solid words became liquid, then vaporized to create a different atmosphere, contained but free. Finally, I could breathe.

Listening between the lines and speaking eye to eye is a rare thing to carry off, and it makes the sublime in analysis possible. Something I thought I knew cracked open and became something else. It was not what I thought it was. I am not who I think I am.

But again, that sounds too simple. How many times in those years did I, in various ways, try to give up? Ruminating on yet another plunge into despair, I said, “This is unsustainable!” Dr. S. replied, “Sadly, it is sustainable. But it’s not acceptable.”

Yes, I needed to give up — but still misapprehended what exactly needed to be given up. Here’s a clue: Litowitz says that in asking patients to communicate freely, analysts are really asking patients to “relinquish their fantasy of perfect understanding — to have faith in the processes of communication . . . the processes that they and we [analysts] have been born into, but somewhere along the line have lost faith in. . . . All our interventions are aimed at restoring that faith.”(4)

To Be Continued

The treatment has ended. Now, paradoxically, there is so much more to be said. Dr. S.’s persistent optimism on my behalf has seeped into my veins. I’ve felt it writing, from what poet Donald Hall called the “vatic voice,” his term for the individual’s internal well of inspiration — a concept derived from his own experience of free association in psychoanalysis.(5) “I know that as you grow older you can learn better how to listen to this vatic voice. You can learn better not to dismiss it, you can learn not to be frightened of it. You can learn to let it keep talking.”(6)

So who am I now? I can say I am more myself, somehow closer to my own bones. I spend less time in the cycle of anxiety-repression-depression. I stay in touch with the associative, even surrealistic, mode of thinking that energized analysis and today energizes other creative acts. On the surface I still appear (as more than one friend has described me) “terminally serious.” In other words, I don’t appear to be happier, which can seem baffling.

But happiness has never been the point. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek puts it this way: “When you are in a creative endeavor, in that wonderful fever — my God, I’m on to something — happiness doesn’t enter it. You are ready to suffer.”(7) Which is not to say that I seek suffering but that I absolutely need the creative endeavor. I do laugh more than I used to.

A week after our last session, I dreamed that a community gathered in a brick schoolhouse to tell me that they had all bought lottery tickets in my name. My winning would be good for them all, and they were certain I would win.

Two months after our last session, I checked in with Dr. S. A friend had died, and I was again at a loss for words. It was good to see him and be seen by him. We talked. What happened in that hour? Nothing that an ordinary observer would find strange. But in that entanglement of minds I was recalled to myself, as Litowitz puts it, “in solitude and in solidarity.”

It is some sort of music. It is a form of humane love. It is belief that stumbling and sideward glances are necessary for living fully, which is itself a movement of incomplete parts. It is belief in talking about what’s more than apparent and yet still not seen.


Notes

  1. In preparing this essay, I asked Dr. S. how he would describe our work: “The most precise term for our work is intensive analytic psychotherapy, which uses the insights of psychoanalysis but is not limited to interpretation, rather allowing for and seeing the value of other interactions, discussions, exchanges, or support that may be useful. I think of our work as very analytic and that the elements of our work that were not primarily interpretation were there to support the analytic process. For me, that involves the gaining of freedom of thought and the understanding of the barriers to self-awareness and respect, in whatever way best serves the process.” (Personal correspondence, July 16, 2014.)
  2. Quoted by Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (New York: Knopf, 2007), 157.
  3. Bonnie E. Litowitz, “Plenary Address: Coming to Terms with Intersubjectivity; Keeping Language in Mind,” American Group Psychoanalytic Association National Meeting, Waldorf Astoria, New York City, 2014.
  4. ibid.
  5. “Donald Hall, The Art of Poetry No. 43,” Paris Review 120 (Fall 1991),http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2163/the-art-of-poetry-no-43-donald-hall.
  6. Donald Hall, “The Vatic Voice,” Goatfoot Milktongue Twinbird: Interviews, Essays, and Notes on Poetry, 1970–1976 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1978).
  7. Slavoj Žižek, “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Interesting?” Big Think, June 25, 2012, http://youtu.be/U88jj6PSD7w.

Thank you to Anne Horowitz and Creative Nonfiction for their support in developing this piece.

Body of Absence

JOEL: I can’t remember anything without you.
CLEMENTINE: Aw, that’s… very sweet, but try.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The people with the most persistent claim on my attention are all gone. The persistence is linked to the gone-ness. I take it upon myself (from somewhere well beyond and before conscious choice) to outline their absence. I hang on to them, which can be a problem because—let’s face it—a degree of forgetting is necessary in order to get on with living.

A loved one’s premature exit fixes even the most banal image into a mental frame. Look. Hold it up to the light. Turn it over. Don’t polish it up. Just look. The way a man once leaned in over a shared dessert, then later tucked a newspaper under his arm right before disappearing around the corner. That man reminded me I could write. There are no more images to be had where that came from.

Howie's Hat
Howie’s Hat

With no new experiences to be had, presence turns to absence and gets filled with stories. At memorials, wakes and shivas. Don’t ask how we are. We are broken. We are sitting at the edge of a volcano trying not to lean in. On a couple of mornings in the early raw months, I wake and for a few seconds am in a prologue world. I wake with mundane thoughts smoothing the sheets. Calm. As if.

And then.

As a writer, I should write about such things. Stories with Meaning and Import. But I have either smoothed frosting over tears or poked at grief so tentatively that every nerve wakens while nothing is healed. I hate those stories. I don’t want those stories.

Then someone who knows loss says to me, “All we have are the stories.” We trade some between us, and the shape of an old absence sharpens again. We’re talking about Howie, murdered in 1992. He was my business partner. We founded Smart Set. We were unlike in most ways, but through the business our names rolled out of people’s mouths as one: howie’an’jana.

In the aftermath, I was a proxy widow, a location for people’s grief. He was so loved. When he was with you, he was really with you. He didn’t leave anything unsaid. No unfinished business. That’s what everyone said at the memorial. I wanted to say, Howie left the unfinished business with me. The widow indeed.

“All we have are the stories,” she said. After 23 years, my memories have been cut and recut. For years I was sure that I was partly to blame. I hadn’t cared well enough for him. Guilt about frustrations vented over the business that I couldn’t take hold of as personal frustrations. So much submerged in my deep seated Minnesota-nice. I didn’t see Howie much in the last months before he and the world he was making were cut short.

None of it made any sense. Killed by two idiot children with men’s strength in their bodies and, I imagine, snow for brains.

I didn’t know where to put that kind of cold. I fetched his Timberwolves jacket from the drycleaner, where no one expected it to be. Howie had vowed to wear it with all its history until the team won a championship. Had he lost faith in the team’s destiny? Or, I hoped, had he met someone new he really wanted to clean up for and impress?  

I tried harder to get hold of my own humanity, usually crouched defensively behind getting to work on time and never being late with a payment. When the homeless man stood on the steps of our first office asking for money—which all three of us knew would go to booze—it was Howie who walked with him down the street to the store where he bought him a loaf of bread, a pack of bologna, mustard and milk.

Howard Liebhaber
Howard Liebhaber

One Monday morning, Howie burst into the office and demanded I sit down and—before anything—read John Sayles’ “The Anarchists’ Convention.” The business survived because of my 24/7 work ethic. I survived because Howie knew that business wasn’t life. I still wonder why, in the lottery of violence, why, why take him—the one who wanted his life—instead of me, who was always ambivalent about everything except a deadline?

There’s forgetting that is oblivion and forgetting that is a form of taking in. We had some hours together, and there our stories end. In all the years since, Howie’s life as he would have lived it goes undone. But not unremarked. I was the one who fought with him and would like to fight with him still. If I love you, I might have to kill you, goes the logic of close relationships, our dependence a feature of love (though often treated as a tragic bug). So maybe it’s my stubborn insistence that we’re not done that has led to a certain taking in of how I remember Howie … an embodiment of memory that needs no specific recollection.

I still wonder what he might say … what new thing he might be fascinated by … what he might insist that I try right now. Listening to music he liked. Reading authors he admired. Technology. Jewishness. Social justice. Bicycles. Sports (occasionally). All those things that don’t come naturally but expand the possibility that I might be able to do what’s needed. Not what is “good.” What is needed.

I’ve taken him in, what parts of him I had the wherewithal in those years to grasp. He told me almost nothing about his personal life, and that was alright between us. We’d never be married, so we had a business, and that had to be alright between us. Really, I knew him so little.

Janice Porter | "coffee cups laughing" | pencil on paper | 8 x 10 | 1985
“Coffee cups laughing” was Janice Perry Porter’s gift to me and Howie on the founding of Smart Set in 1985. (I see him in the cup on the left.)

I dream of him periodically. In the beginning, he would walk in to other dreams to ask how I was. Just interrupt an unrelated scene to check in. In those dreams,  we both know he’s dead. We’re just having our usual coffee meeting but without the coffee (we were all about the coffee).

This January, he showed up in a different sort of dream. He arrives, and he’s alive. He was in prison somewhere, but now he’s back. He stays at my apartment and decorates a room with photographs—most of his life, a few of my life, and some of us together. Thank you for doing this for me, I tell him. With a sideways grin, he says: Who said I did it for YOU?

A full dream, and mostly forgotten on waking, except for the dream’s pulse of SURPRISE. The surprise of Howard. Stories can remind me of his originality but never re-create it. I can’t know what he might have done. Might have said. Might have wanted. Surprise me, I want to say to him. And instead, as the rest of the dream fades and I begin to wake up, one image sharpens: I stand in the middle of the room he has decorated, and now I am holding up his severed head, fingers in his black, curly hair.

Now I’m fully awake … up against the limits of imagination (and memory is an act of  imagination). Conjuring scenes that, no matter how dearly felt, have no body or breath but what I give them.

Other absences crowd in—other people gone too soon for my taste. A swell of what might have been (and relief for some that wasn’t). Doors hush. Screens are dark. There is no looking back that isn’t also a moving forward (though tiny whiplash reversals can feel like standing still). I take what I can remember, mangled pieces of their particularities. I miss them. I miss him. They whisper in my veins and wash my actions with an instruction to get on with my own particularity. Surprise me, I want to say to them. Surprise us, they say back.

Being and Stupidity

Yoshitomo Nara 2014
Yoshitomo Nara 2014

Feeling stupid. Where was I? There’s a moment of stupidity that’s something like a gap in the order of things. A forgetting, except that I don’t care that I’ve forgotten. That sliver is a strange freedom, not unlike the feeling of staying out after dark and ignoring calls to come in. Some game is in play.

Where was I going? 2001. Boston’s Comm Ave, home to plenty of students, the spring sidewalk is covered with crushed apple blossoms, the contents of student apartments piled at the curb. I’ve never seen this kind of waste. Here in Boston, though, at the end of the school year college students move on to jobs or another school or drop out. And wherever they’re going, the furniture is too cheap or heavy to take. So it waits in the open for the garbage truck or scavengers.

I find myself staring at the couch I passed earlier. It’s half in the street, cushions now strewn half a block away. Too much to carry, and in the end, unnecessary for wherever its owner went. An apple tree overhangs the sidewalk. I can’t remember why I came this way, but I walk through it, trying not to slip on the wet mat of trampled blossoms.

Maybe these moments of stupidity, loss of direction, loss of thought, loss of sense are a way to lose what I never needed in the first place: a loss of sense without the sense of loss. The blossoms drop, from beauty to bruised. There’s the green, hard nub of a new apple.

This stupidity is a failure of mind and a subversive success of heart. The order I try to impose on my day is a tiny whip too small to turn some internal caravan from the place it needs to go. In forgetting where I was going, direction can be reinvented. Surrealists embraced this wandering as an exercise. I struggle not to see it as a failure of my Midwestern work ethic.

What am I doing here? I browse the paint chip display at the hardware store. A thousand colors and not one of them the reason I came to the store. Fanning the colors, I wasn’t thinking about repainting the kitchen or the reason green has so many shades and how many of them look beautiful in nature but sickly on a wall… I wasn’t thinking much at all. Busy eyes while I drifted with those things that got buried under paint chips and sink strainers and string—the kind you tie on your finger to remind you of something.

Learning to Love the Vatic Voice

purplewallThere’s a blank. Then a curve or sharp end comes into view: a word or image that wasn’t there before. Where does it come from? Not fully out of my head (the bobbly part I use to dig myself into holes). Maybe the body? (“Write from yr stomach,” Liam Rector advised again and again.) Or somewhere less tangible and harder to name?

Poet and all-around prolific writer Donald Hall termed this creative spring the vatic voice, a capability he believed everyone had:

Vatic was the Greek word for the inspired bard, speaking the words of a god. To most people, this voice speaks only in dream, often in unremembered dream. … It is the vatic voice (which is not necessarily able to write good poetry, or even passable grammar) which rushes forth the words of excited recognition, and which supplies what we call inspiration. … I know that as you grow older you can learn better how to listen to this vatic voice. You can learn better not to dismiss it, you can learn not to be frightened of it. You can learn to let it keep talking…” (1)

Hall’s advice for cultivating the vatic voice reminded me of what I was doing at the time in psychoanalysis, treatment I started because words had dried up. No, the world wouldn’t miss my unwritten poems. But clients wouldn’t pay for a blank page, and I would miss a roof over my head. I had things to say, all trapped under some psychical ice.

The vatic voice sounded something like free association, which is not as freewheeling and random as its perception in popular culture. Free association is a skill that takes time to learn through a shared process of speaking, listening, hearing and being heard. Instead of a transactional “fix me” therapeutic exchange, psychoanalysis teases an open-ended and uncertain dance with the as-yet unspeakable. It takes an attentive, curious, and creative analyst to make it possible, let alone make sense of it.

At the time I read Hall’s short and classic essay, I noted the echo to free association and then forgot about it. I was getting my words back. I was meeting client deadlines. I hacked away at poetry and other personal writing, unearthing texts of myself. I was listening better to myself, an ogre catching small birds and trying not to maul them.

*

Love crept in. The classic transference. I became an analytic cliché, but it gave new meaning to a favorite passage from Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text:

“To be with the one I love and to think of something else: this is how I have my best ideas, how I best invent what is necessary to my work.” (2)

This wasn’t love as subject or object, possessed or possessor. Rather a sort of air that makes a certain relaxed attentiveness possible, an environment necessary for words—on the page (for Barthes) and before the page (for me). Barthes describes the most pleasurable text as one that:

“…manages to make itself heard indirectly: if, reading it, I am led to look up often, to listen to something else. I am not necessarily captivated by the text of pleasure; it can be an act that is slight, complex, tenuous, almost scatterbrained: a sudden movement of the head like a bird who understands nothing of what we hear, who hears what we do not understand.”

As Barthes reads, Hall writes, and I stumbled through hours with my analyst. Each activity is a transit across a territory (book, page, space between two chairs) that mirrors the transit across an inner territory where we each linger to hear a true word.

*

A few months ago I came across an interview in which Hall explained the origin of his notion of the vatic voice. It was, in some measure, something he learned in psychoanalysis, a process that lasted seven years, up to three times a week:

“Coming into my doctor’s office, I learned how to tap instantly into the on-flowing current inside my head. That essential step took me about a year, but once you learn it you don’t lose it. I learned to listen for the vatic voice, to watch images running over the mindscreen, to give a telegraphic account of what I heard and saw. It was good for me as a creature and good for me as a poet.” (3)

He described the effect on his writing process:

“Today when I begin writing I’m aware: something that I don’t understand drives this engine. Why do I pick this scene or image? Within the action of kicking the leaves something was weighted, freighted, heavy with feeling—and because I kept writing, kept going back to the poem, eventually the under-feeling that unified the detail came forward in the poem. The process is discovering by revision, uncovering by persistence.”

photo 2Yes! I was excited and in some way relieved to see that Hall had elegantly translated his psychoanalytic work from the secluded hours of treatment into a concept that any creative could appreciate. It reminds me of what I so easily forget: that speaking and listening to myself is the creative work, whatever the result.

*

Now that my analysis has ended, I’m aware that the territory “between” is now a “between within.” This transition extends the conversation indefinitely, as Hall said:

“Even now I talk with my doctor every day of my life and he explains the sources of feeling—although he’s dead.”

My own psychoanalyst is, I’m grateful to report, very much alive. But there’s an hour on Wednesday that now feels dead. It is the black hole that recurs in my dreams—both the well of a more livable self and the eclipse of loss. The shape of what’s missing and where it might be found.

The open question remains: How well will I be able to stay with my vatic voice? Who is listening? Am I listening? Judith Butler writes,

“The very ‘I’ is called into question by its relation to the one to whom I address myself. This relation to the Other does not precisely ruin my story or reduce me to speechlessness, but it does, invariably, clutter my speech with signs of its undoing. Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.” (4)

So I sit down to write, solitary but not alone, inviting the loose attentiveness that lets something more than mind and even body speak. Something more fragmented, rarely easy, and always incomplete.

* * *

1. Find “The Vatic Voice” in Breakfast Served Any Time All Day: Essays on Poetry New and Selected (University of Michigan Press 2004)

2. The Pleasure of the Text by Roland Barthes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1975)

3. Read the entire interview online: “Donald Hall, The Art of Poetry No. 43,” The Paris Review, Fall 1991, No. 120.

4. Undoing Gender by Judith Butler (Routledge 2004)