Inside the Envelope

“There is only the moment as it is — the seed of whatever might come — if one can wait. The waiting is all and the waiting is together.”
James Hillman

About a week before she died, my great aunt Florence said I might find among her things a large brown envelope marked “Do Not Open.” If I found it, I should destroy it. She couldn’t remember where she hid it. She may have already gotten rid of it. She didn’t want to forget what it held (thus the envelope) — and she didn’t want it remembered (thus the warning).

She had willfully made it to 100 years, 4 months, and counting. In her last weeks, she wasn’t giving up, but parts were. Bits of memory. Her balance. A heart valve. Veins.

Florence’s bodily processes were winding down. Meanwhile, a lucid dream self was making nighttime appearances that she didn’t recall in the morning. Her sense of a singular self was dispersing into separate lines, each moving toward the exit at its own pace. Would her body give out before her mind caught up to where her ineffable self was already going? Would the parts have a chance to harmonize or — as one caregiver put it — to rhyme?

At first, she was waiting to recover. Then, a turn, and she was waiting to die. Once that realization landed, practical Florence wanted to know one thing: “How do I do it?”

The idea of waiting seems passive. Hear the sighs? Florence, on the other hand, would be fully occupied by the process of active dying. Beyond the rage for more time is the longing for a good death. In that, waiting itself requires effort, the way we hold ourselves through it an accomplishment all its own.

Florence’s heart attack had triggered my legal responsibility for her healthcare decisions. My face reminded her of my grandmother Grace, who died in her 20s and was permanently fixed in Florence’s memory as a beloved sister-in-law. My independence reminded her of Pauline, Florence’s mother who, as a young woman, came alone on a ship from Norway to find her future in Wisconsin. Florence and I were both single and childless. We seemed a fit for this.

Activating hospice had turned the emphasis from heroic medical intervention to respect for her natural process. What a relief to detach her 75 pound, 4-feet-and-some-inches frame from the monitors, shed the voluminous hospital gown and bring her back to the assisted living community she had called home for two decades.

For most of her 100 years, Florence had lived an organized life. Now she fought confusion: What day is it? What time of day is it? What’s happened to me? Why do I need oxygen? Why do I feel like this? She’d been healthy so much of her life, she didn’t know what to make of not feeling like herself. Her pride in self-sufficiency was battered. She needed more help than ever while, paradoxically, navigating a radically solitary experience.

Days and nights were soon punctuated by caregivers checking vital signs, delivering medications and monitoring her evolving state. But physical case history stood in sharp relief to a different enigmatic history she was making. That was more like the story of a child at the beach testing the surf’s edge, not sure about jumping over the wave, retreating or wading in.

* * *

“Tempo has three elements: rhythm, emotion and energy. … The most basic decision-making skill is adapting to the tempo of your environment, and setting your own pace within it.”
— Venkatesh Rao (Tempo, Ribbonfarm Inc. 2011)

Flying to Madison suspended my own life in L.A. The previous week I had watched surfers wait for waves, their alert patience a type of situational analysis. To catch the best waves, you have to understand how swells build into sets, how they gather force and break.

What Florence needed was nothing I had ever experienced. She seemed to be moving toward an unknown shore. How could I possibly recognize the patterns taking her there? I worked with her team of medical, hospice and assisted living staff as something like advocate, project manager, witness, and sentry. I focused on saying “yes” to her evolving needs and “no” to whatever interfered.

“Rhyme” was far from my mind. The many rhythms of the wing, hospice care, social visits and Florence’s own escalating condition became jagged and unpredictable. Mundane questions would crash in demanding immediate answers. Surreal questions would slowly materialize out of the shifting atmosphere, demanding only awe. I felt for something closer to pulse, pace or tempo to make sense of what was happening above and below the waterline.

What could be in that envelope? As I watched Florence doze, the question floated light among the weightier facts in the room. Given her quiet life and exceeding modesty, I imagined love letters, perhaps from the one she called “the love of her life.” Undoubtedly handwritten in cursive with a fountain pen. (They had not married because his mother felt Florence’s scoliosis made her unfit to have children. In the late 1920s, no doctor disagreed.)

Her skin, thin and translucent, reminded me of vellum. The term “body envelope” came to mind, how some researchers describe the skin. The skin as container for tangibles — blood, bones, brain, muscle, sinew, organs. The skin as container for intangibles — mind and emotion, intellect and self, spirit and soul. The measurable and immeasurable, multiple layers always in motion, even — perhaps most — when we seem to be still.

Conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim talks about tempo as a container for musical content. He invokes the image of a suitcase. The size of the suitcase — speed of the tempo — has to be right, so the notes won’t burst the seams (suitcase too small, tempo too fast) or sound disorganized (suitcase too big, tempo too slow). When tempo is right, no matter what its speed, the music doesn’t drag or feel rushed. The content and its expression fit.

Tempo as container. Time as structure with shape and dimension. It felt that way as the external world melted away. We left behind normalcy and entered a liminal space. The pulse of each hour became a container for more than could be measured, full of hidden movements imposing their own pace. Secrets she could not name would proliferate.

* * *

A week after her heart attack, Florence wakes up yelling, “Let me go! Let me go back!” She feels smothered by the covers. Wants her hands and feet out. Wants to “go one layer back.”

She stares at the light fixtures in the bedroom and entryway. Her brow knits up … in fear? Or worry? I remember what she told me in the hospital: that she “saw the explosion and the fire.”

In the night, she stares at the ceiling light fixture in the shadowed entryway and whispers, “I don’t know.” She asks the air, “So what’s my next priority?”

* * *

The next day she wants to stand up, sit down, lay down. Can’t get comfortable — why can’t she get comfortable? — wants her clothes off. Terminal restlessness, a phase of active dying, has begun.

She is agitated, her breathing distressed. Her doctor recommends beginning morphine to ease both conditions (I learn that morphine isn’t just for pain). The goal is to keep her comfortable and aware, so she can continue doing her inexplicable work. Waiting implies there is nothing to be done. But in this process of what some would call waiting to die, the largest task looms: the necessity to stay aware in the uncertainty of what comes next.

* * *

Ten days after her heart attack, Florence wakes in the middle of the night demanding to have her feet on the ground. On the ground. “The box.” She says she has to fit in the box.

It’s very small. The box is “129.” She’s the last one through, and when she’s through she has to say “129.” It’s very important to say that.

She’s afraid she will forget the number, so she asks to write it down. I help her with marker and paper to write a shaky 129, then she holds the paper tightly in her fist.

“I don’t know… I don’t know…” She’s somewhere else but looks at me for help. I remember a caregiver’s advice and suggest that she does know, deep inside. Is there anyone she can ask. Mother? Dad?

She leans forward, arms reaching down, chest on her knees. She has to get small enough to get in the box. 129 is VERY small.

She asks me what she should do to get small enough. I say I’m not sure. Maybe there’s something that has to be left behind? Or maybe the box is bigger than she thinks? Whatever the answer, she can find it.

She struggles to get small but apparently not small enough. “I don’t know… I don’t know…” She’s wearing herself out. I ask if she wants to rest — maybe the answer will come in her sleep.

She agrees, though with a tinge of defeat. She says in a small voice, “I have to get big again…” and sits upright. She pushes her shoulders back and says in her loudest voice, “I HAVE TO GET BIG AGAIN!”

She lays back in the chair and says quietly — sadly — “I have to get big again.”

* * *

In the afternoon, we look at cards from Florence’s 100th birthday and read a letter of thanks dated 1947, from the parents of one of her kindergarten students. A nurse comments on the beautiful crabapple blossoms outside. Florence’s second-story picture window is filled with exuberant puffs of white and pink. We turn her chair to face them. Until today, she has wanted to face the open door, to see people passing in the hall, but this change buoys her. At first.

She says the blossoms remind her of “Thanatopsis,” a poem that, for her, has always made sense of death. . . .When thoughts Of the last bitter hour come like a blight . . . Go forth, under the open sky, and list To Nature’s teachings. . .

I ask if she wants to hear or read it. No. She doesn’t want the poem now. I’m relieved, because I don’t want it either. No words, no art seem adequate for what’s happening.

She asks, “Am I dying?”

* * *

A tray of food comes. She wants nothing.

She sighs, worn out: “Do I have to go through this ritual every day? Do I have to do this every day? Eat and drink?”

She describes her days before the heart attack as “up” days, the ones after as “down” days. “What am I supposed to do? I don’t want to die. But I don’t want to be like this, up and down. Up and down.”

She struggles to logically close the gap between her sense of herself — young and robust, even now — and the reality of her body. It’s puzzling: Why can’t she walk on her own? Why does she need help getting to the toilet? Why can’t she live the life she used to live? Who are all these people in her apartment, and why can’t she just tell them to leave?

“This isn’t how I imagined dying. … I thought everything would just go on like it was when things were up. Not like this, when things are down.”

She had vaguely imagined that, in death, she would be the same as always, just somewhere else. But now, she doesn’t recognize herself. What does that mean for who she will be where she’s going? She can’t fathom her body not being as strong as it’s always been, let alone not being at all.

The previous year, I had helped her plan her funeral. The obituary picture she chose was her at 50. Literal midlife, at her full height, in every sense. She thinks for awhile, then gets practical: “How do I do it? Do I just go to sleep?”

* * *

The following day, strawberries and cream for breakfast. Not a last supper. A last bite. Two of her favorite nurses come to take her vital signs (still relentlessly good) and give her medication. One shows off green fingernail polish, getting Florence’s good-natured disapproval — their running joke. In the afternoon, the pastor from her church visits. I never saw her pray, and Florence never spoke to me in spiritual terms, but she trusts that he knows something about dying. She asks him how to do it. He says some people see a light, some see a doorway to walk through, some see a hand reaching out. Whatever it is, she can trust it. Nothing here is holding her from going where she needs to go.

* * *

“the idea like a homesickness starting just to fold and pleat and knot / itself / out of the manyness…”
— Jorie Graham, “The Guardian Angel of the Private Life”

Twelve days since her heart attack. Florence’s gaze is fixed on the crabapple blossoms, then she suddenly wants to be out of her chair, pulls off all the blankets: “Let me be free! Let me be free!”

Then, “Space!” She wants the window ledge cleared. Books, plants, pictures. Gone.

She takes off the oxygen cannula and tells me to leave her alone. She says she needs to be on the ground, so I help her down, slowly, until she’s on her back staring at the ceiling, hands on her stomach. She closes her eyes. Is she rehearsing?

Later that day, she protests: “Stop holding me and let me die! … Let me be free! … Let me be. Let me be. Let me be free! Let me go. Let me go.” What started as a metaphysical protest has become a request for the body. “Let me go” means to the toilet. Biology satisfied, she says: “Lay me down in a straight line and let me die.”

A nurse and I move her to her bed. She refuses pillow, oxygen, and covers. She seems resigned, but is it an angry resignation? (Fine! You want me to let go? I’ll show you how I can let go!) Or are her threads coming together? Is she rhyming? I want to think that her body, mind, and ineffable self are finally having the same conversation, but there’s no way to know.

Because she no longer wants oxygen, I can turn off the chugging machinery and open the windows. A breeze flows in. Birdsong and voices drift up from the garden, along with a distant grind of lawnmowers.

As night approaches, I drape her favorite shawl over her. She doesn’t object. I’ve placed a picture of her parents where she will see it, if she opens her eyes. Her arms are crooked 90 degrees at the elbows and flung to the left. Her left hand droops off the edge of the bed, half open. This is where she wants it, having returned it there twice after nurses moved it onto the bed. She knows what she wants. She will die in this posture.

Her body is still, breath shallow, pulse steady. Her mind, decisive in its silence, bolsters her frailty with a deliberate weight. Her eyes, roaming behind closed eyelids, speak to some inner life in motion. A new kind of waiting begins.

* * *

Barenboim describes three “directions” tempo can take. Without changing speed, the quality of tempo can change to propel sound forward, expand outward or stabilize downward. Within what is, at one level, tempo’s steady state are different freedoms, if we listen closely. Florence was doing all three — moving forward, expanding, and going deep.

* * *

I sleep in two-hour spurts, swimming up out of sleep when a nurse brings the next round of medication. Discombobulated. A vague empathy for new parents. Florence sleeps through this.

Staff and other visitors stop by to tell me stories about Florence and their own losses. I’m exhausted. I don’t want to be a vessel for their grief. I’m busy holding my own in check; my primary responsibility is still to make decisions for her care, and clarity of mind is more difficult every day. But I listen, strangely privileged to be in the twilight where the inescapable thing we will all do is playing out.

* * *

Florence’s body spasms violently, eyes open, arms up and reaching. After a few seconds, she relaxes. My heart is in my throat, but the nurse says it’s a natural result of biochemical changes as her body dehydrates.

I comb her hair (defiantly thick and wavy), wash her face (the morphine drips blue on her cheeks), and put balm on her lips.

I offer her a sponge of water. She refuses. This is another gateway. A robust person can last up to a week without liquids. The doctor says Florence may last a day or two.

* * *

Florence’s frame is outlined by the brown, lofty shawl. She reminds me of a recurring character from my dreams, a woman who shows up still and unmoving, usually laying on the ground, sometimes outright injured but more often simply making one thing clear: she’s in so much pain she doesn’t want to be touched. She has no tears left. This deeply wounded woman asks just one thing: Don’t move me.

I’ll cry when this is over. Now it’s all I can do to breathe.

* * *

Two days later, Florence lays in the same position, pulse strong and steady. My thoughts shuffle through: What’s keeping her here? Does she need something? Something from me? She was always particular. I wonder if she’s annoyed that I haven’t gotten something right by her standards. I quietly ask her forgiveness for any lapses. She grimaces.

Is she still attached to her routine? Back to her idea about what afterlife would be — more of the same. Wake up. Read the paper. Comb her hair. Eat breakfast. Take a walk. Not an exciting routine by many standards, but her routine. Her life.

I wonder if she considers death a failure to live? Like an eternal laziness, the long morning when she didn’t have the will to get out of bed? Unacceptable.

* * *

By afternoon, her palms are dusky (blood pools as circulation slows). Her face is soft, a blue cast around her mouth. Visitors comment on her hair — bright, thick, and alive. There’s something elegantly casual about the drape of her wrist off the bed’s edge. She would like the “elegant” part.

Several caregivers note how unusual it is for someone to be so lucid through the process of active dying. She is still (even through the morphine) finding ways to let us know what she does and doesn’t want. One observes that, approaching death, the personality doesn’t dissipate. It magnifies. People sputter through during the day to say hello, meaning goodbye. Time spirals while her body gets smaller, her intangibility larger.

* * *

I think of that envelope marked “Do Not Open.” I decide that, if I find it, I’ll open it. I’m not proud of this idea, but I keep wondering if, in some backhanded way, Florence wants me to look for it. In the doublespeak of the unconscious self, has she pointed me to the envelope hoping curiosity will get the better of me?

A sealed envelope can impose silence. It can also be a deliverance. Does some part of her want to be known, even if it violates her more modest self? Am I her way out of a certain secret? Am I here to account for what she can’t forget?

Life rarely has the sense of urgency we relish in stories, the concentrated emotional stakes that hold our attention. But death in the room changes that. We had entered a liminal passage “between the waning of one important life story and the waxing of another,” as Rao describes. “Between liminal passages, we live through a special kind of enactment … a deep story. Unlike ordinary enactments, a deep story is an episode of creative destruction that is significant enough to transform you. … Liminal passages chop up our lives into deep stories, creating the fundamental tempo of life.”

* * *

The following day, Florence’s pulse is still strong, her breathing more shallow and rapid. My own life has been suspended for two weeks now, and I’m aware of a gnawing thought: I’m trapped. I worry that we’ve passed from the danger of leaving a liminal space too soon to the danger of staying too long. Stuck in betweenness a form of trauma, an endless repetition rather than a moving through.

“Terminal restlessness” struck me as a perfect term for my own years of going without ever really getting anywhere. Was it time for us both to shed what was no longer working and move through to the next deep story?

And the mirror of this: If I feel trapped by her process, does Florence feel trapped by me? Am I holding her here? I ask Florence’s closest friend, and she agrees it’s possible. Florence is always so happy when I visit, she may just not want it to end. Or maybe it’s etiquette: The good hostess doesn’t leave ahead of the guest.

So I whisper back to her the words she said to me days ago: “Let me go.” It’s time to let each other go. Our next lives are waiting for us.

I notice Florence’s one bare nail, cardinal red polish stripped so the oxygen sensor could read properly. I ask her beautician to paint it in. Ten red nails, fully dressed.

* * *

People stop by but don’t stay long. We stay in the living room, peeking into the bedroom or watching her around the corner in a strategically placed mirror.

It feels like we could do this forever. I can’t anticipate how this liquid tempo will abruptly rise into a tide of to-dos: undertaker, flights home and back, driving her ashes north, burying them at the foot of her mother’s grave, sorting out her apartment, mementoes to relatives, memorial service, thank you’s… a list of trivia compared with this ocean we’re treading now. But not trivial at all, since that is the stuff that testifies to remembrance and survival.

It’s Friday, and as the afternoon wanes, weekday staff stop to say goodbye. No one expects her to be here when they return Monday. The head nurse lingers. We talk quietly. Then she grabs my arm and pulls me into the room: “She’s passed.”

6:25 p.m. That quiet. That simple. That quick. That long.

* * *

I didn’t find the envelope. I gave up the search after the last piece of furniture in her small apartment was accounted for, all her belongings boxed and distributed. Was it there to be found? Did I miss it? Or had she already destroyed its body, if not its memory?

Still, the envelope found me. First: an urgency to find. Then: frustration at not finding. Frustration fading into disappointment. Then the letting go, shifting expectation from “might have been” to “never will be.” And then the silent grief for the idea of a secret so urgent that it cannot be forgotten and yet must not be remembered. And out of that, the hum of new curiosity and fuller fascination. Not the envelope she hid but the one she willed me.

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.


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.


  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),
  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,

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


Just as an intense year of CalArts coursework in Aesthetics and Politics was coming to a close, video of Howard surfaced.* The long path from then to now lit up like neon.** In that sudden vacancy after the end of classes, this text-gather happened. It’s me, Howie, and Judith Butler (because I think he would’ve loved her thought) – voices differentiated by typeface (see the legend in lower right).

Zoom in on the text or download the PDF version here.


*Heartfelt thanks to John Mehring, who followed his curiosity into the archives and found a videocassette of “On the Safe Side” in the San Francisco Public Library. He shared the find with me (and others who knew Howie) with the help of Kevin Brown at Smart Set. My thanks to them both.

**In my first trip to L.A. back around 1984, friends drove me through a sketchy part of downtown at night (after all, what are friends for?) to show me what looked like a solid vertical bar of neon blazing on the corner of a building. As we drove by (and then drove by again), out of the corner of my eye the solid bar wiped into a word. (I think it was “MONA” – for the Museum of Neon Art.) That’s a decent analogy for most of what sticks with me: it’s not the frontal assault that makes the deepest impression but the experience that sneaks in from the side.

No Two Ever the Same

IMG_2313 2

This short piece was published in The CalArts Eye, a student-run periodical that struck me as the perfect venue for this odd little story inspired by a run-in with one of Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca sculptures at MOCA in Manhattan. 

No Two Ever the Same 

It was Pablo Putnam’s 49th birthday. He sat in an attitude of true prayer, pants around his ankles, one hand on his abdomen, the other lightly on his knee. He was alone in what others called a Beacon Hill mansion. But to him it was just home, a womb passed down the generations from a genius coal tar chemist who, after buying a fresh start and a shorter last name, made it possible for every Putnam thereafter to pursue a more meaningful existence, free from the need to count money.

Pablo was nestled in a legless leather armchair grafted on top of what looked like a marble-faced cabinet, about the size of a refrigerator laid on its side. He suddenly gripped the arms, leaned back into the dark cowhide, then, with a slight shudder, sighed, stood up and looked into the seat.

There, on a porcelain plate, was his 49th birthday piece. Nicely formed. Delicately shaded. A piece that would have made his mother proud. He smiled and clapped twice. A hum rose, the conveyor belt began its Sisyphean journey, and the dish disappeared into the cabinet. Pablo pulled up his pants, carefully tucked in his Oxford shirt, and by the time his belt was buckled, his piece was ready at the other end. He wrote the date in a legible but distinctive hand on the clear, vacuum-sealed pouch. Then he took it carefully into the ornate but narrow box of the mansion’s antique lift, down three flights to what was once a wine cellar.

A gallery of wood-paneled cabinets with engraved brass plates glowed under the lights. He opened the cabinet labeled “Birthday Series” and leaned into the wave of chilly air rolling out of the freezer. He looked thoughtfully at the contents, back through his thirties, twenties, teens (how the years had flown!) … right back to his first piece, quaintly encased in plastic wrap.

Elizabeth Putnam had always wanted an artist in the family but had less than no talent of her own. Her hope was kindled, however, after reading an interview with a famous painter. Everything he said about the creative process seemed to describe what her son, just eleven months old, was doing on a daily basis.

The artistic process,” she read, “is mysterious. An artist must create the conditions for a piece to emerge—indeed must sometimes work very hard to create them—but is never fully in control of the result, which must always speak for itself.”

Leaning over the crib, she felt some preternatural connection between the artist’s and her son’s baldness. She put her hand on Pablo’s small round belly, felt the prodigious gurgling and was encouraged.

“Critical is the artist’s willingness to surrender to the process. When the process is forced, the result will emerge damaged, and the artist’s vision will remain unexpressed.”

That was the final sign; Pablo’s daily productions were so effortless! She was even a little envious of his facility, but far be it from her to let a mother’s ego stand in the way. On Pablo’s first birthday, she had asked the nanny to bring a square of plastic wrap from the kitchen. Among the staff, the nanny was the first to leave—regretfully, she said, telling the cook that as Beacon Hill brats go, Pablo was a dream. Resourceful and committed, mother and son had never looked back.

Pablo loved his mother, so when he became a man he took on the mantle of his creativity and later invented the device to make the process more elegant and, he felt, even more eloquent. True, it took some of the whimsy and handcrafted authenticity out of each presentation, but he had begun to feel that the outer wrapping distracted from the real event. Decorating the package with colors or designs seemed the crutch of a young artist unwilling to fully embrace the bold message emerging from his deepest instincts and inclinations. He considered the vacuum-seal process and its clear result a sign of creative maturity. He was also tired of grazing his fingers on the serrated edge of the plastic wrap box.

Art was always a private family affair. But one day (years after his mother quietly slumped in the corner of the elevator on her way down to ensconce “Summer Storm 1976” in the gallery) his Bentley was rear-ended. A woman negotiating an unfamiliar manual transmission had hit the gas instead of the brake. She was from New York, and when she asked what kind of business he was in, he was emboldened by her open expression to declare himself for the first time publicly: “I’m an artist.” She asked to see his work and, surprising himself, he agreed, then tore up her insurance information and declared that he would take care of the repairs.

He took her down to the gallery. The lift was a close fit, but she was charmed by the old technology. The Putnams were the first family on the Hill to install one, he explained. “Visionary,” she said, and blushed when the car, hiccupping on the descent, jostled them together.

Under the gallery lights, he shyly opened display after display, until they stood in front of the “Snowstorms” series, waves of cold rolling out of the freezer. She hugged herself, shivering with pleasure, and turned to him, dumbfounded: “Why have you never shown these?” He demurred. She shivered again. “We must take these to Manhattan. I have connections.”

So they did, mounting an ongoing series of exhibits that began with a few snickers but quickly turned to admiration on the strength of “Turning Points,” pieces inspired by dramatic days including Lennon’s assassination, fall of the Berlin Wall, Cobain’s suicide and 9/11. Critics noted the remarkable similarity of those pieces to each other, as compared to the variety in a travel series like “Mediterranean Fantasie.” (He had invented a discreet travel version of his vacuum seal, making it possible to take exotic trips that never failed to inspire what critics agreed was some of his best work.)

Soon celebrity chefs proposed collaborations to showcase their cuisines, providing (as one commentator described it) the paint for his portraits. A line of men’s kilts showed up at Fashion Week, pitched as an unencumbered approach to artistic expression. Pablo distanced himself, telling the press that the fashion designer had clearly misunderstood the deliberate, systematic nature of his process.

He refused commercial connections, having no need of money and no interest in being part of what he saw as a sellout consumer culture. Young imitators had already begun to mount copycat shows, but no one yet could match Pablo’s originality. One young video artist was adamant about wanting to capture him on film “at his canvas,” suspecting some secret poetry in motion was behind such distinctive work. But Pablo refused, uncertain if the videographer’s interest was truly aesthetic or perhaps—and this came over him like a waft of intuition—prurient.

The only person he wanted to invite into his process was her, the one who had recognized his unique gift and helped him bring it to the world. But so far she showed no interest. The one time he obliquely proposed the idea, she put up a hand and said something about the inviolate sanctity of the artist’s studio, a place that should not be compromised with outside influences—not even hers.

He didn’t mention it again. But sometimes he felt her absence, wishing she might want to kneel by him, one hand on his lower back, encouraging him to make something no one had ever seen before or would ever make again.