Robert and Susan

The first time I saw Robert, he had come into the gift shop where I was working, in this nice downtown-Asheville hotel.  He’s about 35, tall, muscular and deeply tanned – with a blonde pony tail that he wears, always, sticking through the back of his baseball cap.  He bought a soda and I noticed that his hands and arms were really dirty – certainly different than our guests.  As he wandered out into the lobby, I went across the hall to Joanna, who works at the bar.

“Do you know that guy?”

“Yes I do – and he’s not supposed to set foot in this hotel.  One night he got into an altercation with a security guard.  Now what’s he doing out front with that guest’s suitcase?  He’s going to steal it!”  Well, it turned out he was only angling for a tip – but I felt gratified that my instincts had been right that there was something not ok about him.

The next time I encountered Robert, he was with a relatively attractive young woman who I have come to realize is his girlfriend.  She also is tall and slender, with long, very slim arms.  She took the lead in coming up to me one evening on the street with a classic panhandler story about how their truck had broken down and they needed $50 to get it fixed, so they could go home to Tennessee.

“Now why are you giving me this bullshit story?  I know you live here in Asheville.  Leave me alone.”

A couple of weeks later, they approached me again for a handout (no story this time, though I don’t think they remembered me) and this time I surprised myself by how I really kind of lost it on them.

“Go away – I’m not giving you shit.”

I didn’t know why the eruption of emotion.  I didn’t actually yell “Get a job!”, but I think I may have been responding to some feeling that it was unfair for them to ask for money they hadn’t earned.  I didn’t know – it was genuinely unlike me.  When Robert responded with, “OK, you don’t have to be mean about it”, I really felt that I had been kind of mean.  I felt kind of sheepish.

The next few times I saw Robert and Susan, we had no interaction – it was me observing them walking down the street together.  Here are some things I noticed, over several observations spread out over several weeks:

  • Susan really swings her pretty, slender arms as she walks – or one arm when she and Robert are holding hands.  There is something that looks free and expressive about it.  I like the way she does it.  I was even kind of thinking that I maybe liked her a little.
  • When Robert and Susan walk down the street, she is almost always chatting up a storm.  It is clear that she likes talking to him.  And he seems to be genuinely listening to her – not just the “Uh, uh”s that guys often use with their wives and girlfriends.
  • They often seemed to be walking in the same direction, south from downtown Asheville.  I wondered where they stayed at night.

The next time I did encounter Robert and Susan face-to-face, they were standing on the sidewalk as I walked by, having a very animated conversation with two very straight, middle-class-looking women.  All four of them seemed to be really enjoying the interaction.  I found myself surprised that they were talking to “normal” people.  I guess I had it in my head that they would only talk with other street people.

The next couple of times I saw the couple walking down the street (no signs of panhandling), I surprised myself again – in a different direction this time.  I was starting to like them.

The next time I directly crossed their paths, on a side street I frequented for walking downtown, I noticed myself slightly stiffen towards the touch I expected them to put on me.  To my surprise, there was no request for money.  Rather, Robert (whose name I still did not know) gave me a friendly “Hey” -and Susan an absolutely beautiful, sweet warm smile.  It kind of took my breath away.

After that, when I would see them on the street, I knew that I flat-out liked these two people.  To me, they stopped being “street people” and became two people trying to make their way in this world – people with their own unique lives and their own kind of dignity.

Robert comes through the hotel lobby frequently – to use the bathroom.  The other day, he came into the gift shop again.  He asked if we had any medicine for an upset stomach – which even further humanized him to me.  I introduced myself.

“Hey, I see you and your girlfriend walking around town a lot – my name is Majo.”

“Hi, I’m Robert.  My girlfriend is Susan.”  And we shook hands.

“How did you get this job?  I’m looking for something to do part-time – but preferably for cash.  I’m on a veteran’s disability and I can’t earn much money without losing my benefits.  But I can’t make ends meet on my monthly check.”  I know several people on one or another kind of disability and have heard a couple of them talk about how hard it is to make ends meet on their check.

We then had a pleasant little conversation, griping together about how few decent-paying jobs there are in this town .  Me and Robert, talking with each other about jobs.  Far out…

 

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Opening the Inner Voice

It’s the Thanksgiving weekend, and I’m in Chicago at my mom’s place. This kind of visit always feels a little weird to me. There are lots of nieces and nephews, lots of people to pay attention to. But popping myself out of the context of my regular life so much interrupts my natural momentum that I often feel somewhat adrift – not quite sure what to focus on. I can easily get bored or depressed. Without all the many gripping “to-do’s” that dominate my daily life, I can feel a little lost.

Yesterday morning, Thanksgiving Day, had a lot going for it. I had a good solid eight hours sleep and was really well rested for the first time in a while. I did my morning stretches at a leisurely pace, showered, and meditated for twice as long as usual. I got very peaceful. Then I took some of the kids for a walk. Came home, and there still was an hour or so before time to go to my brother’s place for the big feast. And I couldn’t deny to myself the fact that I was feeling really restless. All the good stuff I had done that morning hadn’t left me feeling peaceful. I felt a little down on myself. “Gee whiz, you’re so neurotic. Here you have all this leisure, such a rare commodity in your life, around all these people who you love and who love you, and you still can’t relax. You really have problems.”

I had brought my laptop computer along for the trip and had lots of chapter ideas I was hoping to work on this weekend. I had not really thought of writing this morning – feeling, I guess, that I had to devote this whole day to visiting, to being with family, before I could then “work” on succeeding days. I had not given myself permission to do my writing on the holiday itself.

But now, with an hour to kill and this restlessness really kind of shouting at me, I headed for my computer in the basement, almost out of desperation. Amazingly, I found every step in the process to have a centering effect on me. By the time I was several paragraphs into a section that was just pouring out of my unconscious, my focus on it was so complete that I was able to graciously describe to two nephews who came through, what this machine was and what I was doing, basically without missing a thought or a key stroke. When I got the last call from upstairs that we were hitting the road, I was writing the last sentence in a really nice little chapter, and was so satisfied I practically did a little dance around the basement.

Where did that chapter come from? Did I invent it as a way to focus my mind, to bring some satisfaction to my morning? Was it the driven product of a hopeless workaholic? I don’t think so. I believe that, in the relative leisure of this slow-paced morning, the chapter idea which had loaded in my brain last, which was based on a very recent experience, and which I had some nervousness that it would lose its vividness before I had a chance to write it up, started pushing at me to get written. If my skills at listening to the cues from my unconscious were even more developed, I might possibly have written it first thing when I got up. Or perhaps it really needed me to do some of those other balancing activities before the time was really right.

Finally, though, I could not deny the cues from within my organism that something wasn’t sitting right. Even while there were so many cues from other parts of the household that this morning was a good time for sitting around and watching TV, I finally could not avoid my own sense that I was meant to be doing something else. When I managed to figure out what that inner urge was about and to express it, I was finally contented and happy.

I once heard Norman Mailer, on a radio interview, say that he writes for a couple of hours every morning. His image is that his unconscious lines up some writing for him every night while he sleeps. He pictures this material as like little soldiers all ready to go out and do their thing. If he doesn’t release them, if he forces them to sit there in his brain unexpressed, they keep him vaguely tense until they are finally let out. I heard that image many years ago, and it still has power for me.

Later that day, as the gathering at my brother’s place was winding down, my mom confided in us that this was her 56th wedding anniversary. Our dad has been dead for over 30 years now, and our stepdad almost 11 years. She had been shy about talking about our dad in front of our stepbrothers, but now had found her chance.

This day was so full of family. It’s always a little haunting to me how my brother’s kids hold within their little faces and bodies lots of genetic reminders of generations of our family. So I think my pump was primed. I started to remember some things about my dad that I had not thought of for many years – maybe since before he died. I felt a powerful sense of connection with him and support from him – almost as if he had been in the room with us. I had already mentioned to my mom that my dad had been on my mind a lot lately, that I had been thinking and talking about him more lately. I knew then that this experience of connection with him was for me another inner voice that had been trying to get my attention for some time. I felt very peaceful and happy.

I got another good night of sleep last night, and this morning woke up to a very strong erotic fantasy about a lovely young woman whom I have been getting to know over the last few months. I had picked up from my home answering machine last night a really sweet Thanksgiving greeting she had left for me, and I guess this left her on my mind.

We met through mutual friends and have had a few really strong conversations with each other. She is an extremely energetic, independent, strong-willed young woman, with her own strong voice and unique slant on things – and with also some deep pain over some early experiences, which she hesitates to relate most people, but had felt some immediate comfort in confiding to me. When on occasion one of those mutual friends has asked me, with a mischievous twinkle in their eye, “How things are going” between us, I have soberly denied that there was anything in the air beyond simple friendship. “There’s too big an age difference and we are too different in other ways – we just really like to talk with each other.” I knew I had noticed how attractive she is, but was denying that physical attraction was to any great extent driving my interest in her. Tough to deny that now.

I still hold to the position that we are too different in age and other ways for it to make any sense to pursue a sexual or romantic relationship. It just wouldn’t fit with where I am going with my life right now – and maybe not her, either. But I consider myself now warned by my unconscious that sex is a bigger factor on at least my side of this equation than I had realized. I need to factor this information in to my decisions about how and if we spend time together, to hopefully avoid getting into any major disconnects or blind alleys with this friendship. And if, by chance, she should ever also be inclined to sexualize our connection, I will now have more ability to respond in a thoughtful way, rather than get stampeded by suppressed impulses.

These three strands from my unconscious – the impulse to write a chapter, the memories about my dad, and the information about sexual attraction in this relationship – were all pretty different in content. What they have in common is that they are all messages from my unconscious which I had initial trouble tuning in, then finally heard with more clarity. And all brought me extremely valuable information. In these couple of days with the rest of my life being less distracting, I managed to open some windows to other parts of myself, and that opening process built on itself, bringing me one useful awareness after another.

I think it works that way. Our inner life will wax and wane. We go through cycles of pre-occupation with our outer world, when we are relatively less receptive to our inner voices. Then we will, if we are lucky and maybe disciplined, return again to that inner world. Enough sleep, some exercise, and meditation all, I think, helped me crack these windows.

In the couple of months after my wife and I split up – after I faced the fact that I could not make that relationship work – I also left a spiritual community and a job. That made for a fairly devastating amount of change all at once. But, once I had moved out of denial and more started to really listen to my inner voices, I knew that those other situations no longer really fitted or supported me, either.

I have a couple of friends who have impressive psychic gifts, who say that, before they surrendered to and opened the psychic channels within themselves, they went through extended periods of restlessness and depression. They realized afterwards that they had been unconsciously blocking and suppressing these voices, which at first felt so foreign and disturbing. Once they had made their peace with these other parts of themselves and allowed them to have voice, they felt much more peaceful and whole ­integrated.

The voices that are welling up within us can range from subtle messages that we need more exercise or less alcohol, to realizations that we need to move towards or away from certain relationships, to powerful realizations about our highest potentials.

But all these voices come through very related channels. Opening ourselves to one can add power to another. They are all us. Integrating one voice can make us stronger and clearer for listening to another. It’s a lot of work, but it can also make our lives lots easier, freer and fuller. And only we can do it. We can get help – from a counselor, a friend, a course on dreams, a laptop computer. But the work is ours.

 

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Neighbors

I am not especially well traveled. I have never crossed an ocean. This whole thing about Europe could be a scam, as far as I know – hopefully some day I’ll go there and I can let go of that concern. My cross-cultural experiences have been relatively limited, but have changed me, and keep me forever craving more.

I grew up in a white, lower middle class suburb of Chicago. My dad was an electrician, and we were very solidly working-class stock, in a suburb that then was mostly also working-class folks just getting out of the city. One of my elementary classmates had a father who was a lawyer – that seemed like another world. I was one of the first people in my extended family to go to college.

Re-evaluation Counseling theory says that everyone of us, as little ones, instinctively rejected the discriminatory treatment of other people based on their different race or ethnicity – or really any demographic difference. But the overwhelming, monolithic response of the prevailing culture – often delivered by loving, well-meaning parents who were simply trying to teach us “how it is” – mostly snuffed this outrage early in our lives. My outrage had been mostly snuffed by the time I got to high school. I was mostly numb to the evils of prejudice and bigotry.

I went to high school in the city and rode the subways with black people – cars mostly full of black people. I was a little afraid, and also very stimulated – these people were different. But I never got to know any of them. And my high school was mostly white, and my college. I started getting lots of new ideas in college. I marched with Dr. King when he came to Chicago, but was really still pretty intimidated by all that, and never got enough involved to develop relationships with people of color.

I was out of college before I had any extended contacts with people who were racially different from me. I had married. We were in Rochester, New York, where I was in graduate school, and my wife was teaching elementary school in the inner city. We joined the white social action group that supported and worked with FIGHT, the black neighborhood empowerment group. Between her work and this group, we started to socialize some “across the color line”. An evening with a bunch of her parents, where people brought out a whole lot of drums and other rhythm instruments and just made music together – us included – will always stay in my brain as one of the most culturally rich experiences I had ever had.

We developed more wanderlust. We lived outside of a little college town (where I taught) in the southern tier of New York State, and got to know some real rural people. We then moved to Nova Scotia (where I worked in a mental health center, and she taught school), and lived in a little hamlet where all the men worked as fishermen, farmers, or coal miners. The people there mostly accepted us, and we had many more charming evenings of homemade music, Celtic in influence, with people bringing out their guitars and mandolins and autoharps.

While we lived in Nova Scotia, we adopted our son. It made no sense to us to fight and wait for a child that lots of other people would be glad to adopt, so we told the adoption worker we were open to a child who was “hard to place”. One category of those kids up there, where there was a very limited pool of black adoptive parents, was mixed-race kids. Our son, who came to us at 6 months old because no home had been found for him earlier, is one-quarter black and three-quarters white Canadian.

We have taken very seriously our responsibility to provide our son with lots of experiences to support his black identity. What has been most striking to me has been how personally nurturing and enriching for me these experiences have been.

After we moved to Syracuse, I studied Aikido for a couple of years at a school that was extraordinarily ethnically diverse. The teacher was Burmese, the top 3 students were black, and there were lots of other Latin, Asian, and Middle-Eastern students. I loved it all, and they all loved my son. We developed a special connection with one black family – the father was a black belt at the school – that lived around the corner from us and had kids my son’s age. When Terry went through a brief phase of wishing he had straight hair, he suddenly had all these really cool black adults fussing over his great hair and showing him how to take care of it. He drank these experiences in hungrily.

When I moved back to Chicago, I relished the rich ethnic mix there. Latin people were everywhere, with their beautiful features and language. Black culture was very mainstream. Harold Washington’s election as mayor was thrilling. I lived in Oak Park, a lovely suburb just west of the all-black Austin neighborhood of Chicago – and internationally known for its efforts at conscious and rational integration. Interracial families cluster in this town, and I joined the Biracial Family Network, a support group for families like ours.

I was divorced at this point, with Terry and his mom living in Louisville, but I visited him there every third or fourth weekend and he spent Christmas, spring break, and summers with me. The biracial group became our social anchor in Chicago. Terry had a wonderful peer group of kids like himself, and we both had wonderful black adult friends. We stay close to some of those families, and always will.

One of the things we both learned from this group was that, while it is great for a biracial kid to know and affirm all their parentage, there is a point in adolescence where the culture will simply define them as black, and they had better be comfortable doing likewise. Terry has now made that transition beautifully. He knows he has Irish and other white blood, but his identity is now very solidly African-American. He is proud of that culture, and appropriately sensitive to and angry about racism. He likes himself. He’s doing great.

There’s a funny thing about being a white person with a black child – your own identity starts to get a little fuzzy. I had always felt some real affinity for black culture, as much as I knew it. Now we were immersing ourselves in it. And here was this son of mine, whom I love as I have never really loved before – who is black. Progressively, in subtle, unintended ways, black people stopped being “them” to me.

I worked during those years at a primarily black VA hospital on the west side of Chicago. One day, Terry and I and Eddie, a black psychology intern I was supervising, were at the Bud Billiken Day parade – the big Spring parade sponsored by the black daily paper, through the heart of the south side. Eddie looked at me at one point and said, “Look at those two white chicks over there – don’t they look uncomfortable in this black crowd.” It was only as an afterthought that he remembered I was white, and screamed with laughing apology. It was a wonderful compliment.

During this same period, a hole was torn in my wall of psychological separation from Latin peoples.  A number of my friends were involved in political activities trying to influence our government to stop supporting the right wing dictatorships in Guatemala and El Salvador, where so many people were being murdered by government-supported death squads.

My attitude for many months was that I just couldn’t consider the possibility of emotionally opening myself to all this trouble and pain, too. There was too much to deal with right here at home. Let the radicals and do-gooders fight this fight if they wanted – ­it was way too overwhelming to me.

I’m sure my resistance was being worn away gradually. But then, one day, I spent an hour looking through a book of photographs documenting the killings in Guatemala. And suddenly, without intending it, that psychological distance which I had been relying on to keep me from caring too much about those little countries far away, melted. Those Latin people suddenly seemed like the neighbors that they are, and the pictures of their tortured, mutilated bodies broke my heart. I cried hard over that book, and turned a corner I could not reverse. The suffering of these people in our hemisphere no longer felt far away and abstract.

I still did not really know what to do to make a difference, and – much as I had feared – thinking about this situation was making me more frustrated and unhappy. Oddly though, I felt also liberated and expanded. I realized that I had been working hard at not caring about these people, and now no longer had to use up energy trying to stay numb around this. Also, identifying with these Latin people felt somehow wonderful. I value and affirm my whiteness, my strongly Irish roots. But being only white has always felt strangulating to me. Waking up to the parts of me that resonate with blackness, and now with Latin peoples, opened up exciting new windows in my mind and in my identity.

Shortly thereafter, some friends were at a meeting where they were told of a family of Guatemalan refugees who had an emergency need for shelter. No one in the room was able at that time to take them in. But several of them had heard me complain that my lovely big apartment was feeling pretty lonely when Terry was not around. Four days later, Margarito (30), Maria (29), Adolpho (7), and Regina (4) moved in with me.

These beautiful, incredibly brave and strong people stayed with me for six months. Margarito knew some Spanish and hardly any English. The others spoke only the Indian dialect from their region in the Guatemalan highlands. Through interpreters, I and others from our church community heard the stories of how Margarito to had been targeted for death because, as a Catholic catechist, he was teaching about human rights in the mountain villages, and had finally fled for his life. And of how, a year later, the others in the family, with the rest of their village, had run with only the clothes on their backs into the mountains, when the word had come that the soldiers were moving towards their village. They knew what was happening in other villages, where the soldiers claimed there were guerrilla sympathizers. They spent several months making their way through the mountains to Mexico, and two more years there in a refugee camp, before Margarito could locate them and save the money to have them smuggled into California.

During their first months with me, Adolpho drew a picture of the government soldiers, on an earlier sweep, bayoneting his nine-year old cousin, in front of the family. He drew many pictures of the helicopter gunships, shooting at the people making their way through the high jungle. He – and the entire family – would laugh heartily at these pictures. I knew this was their way of confronting and beginning to heal those devastating memories. But their strength, and exceptional intactness after what they had been through, kept amazing me.

Margarito and Maria would sometimes simply squat over their heels for long periods of time, saying nothing. I asked my friend Jean, who knew more about Latin culture and did a lot of the translating, what they were doing. “They’re just being – they don’t always need to be doing anything.” The closest I ever came to “just being” was when I meditated. This had taken a lot of training for me, and still often felt like a mental wrestling match, trying to get my jumpy mind to sit still. The ease with which these lovely people could simply sit, left me awed and humbled. In fact, that thread ran through all their behavior – a simple directness, a complete being there.

I have traveled to Mexico for a couple of vacations. I have been very impressed by the extent to which Mexican people I met there have this same focused quality. On one occasion, it came clear to me that people in these traditional cultures treat relationships with a reverence that we have largely lost. I went through culture shock when I returned to my corporate job. A company which had always before struck me for its warm, family-feeling culture now seemed like a place where everybody was trying to get something from you – support for their project, answers, connections, data, something – while never taking the time to simply encounter you person-to-person. I got glimpses of just how much we have lost.

And that’s where I end up with different peoples, different cultures. Each culture carries with it some special value, a special window on the world. Exposure to African-American or Latin-American (or Asian or Celtic) culture has the potential to stir aspects of my humanity that have not been cultivated by my white cultural experience. I see and discover parts of me that could have stayed forever lost – parts of my self that I find incredibly rich and fulfilling. I become more whole.

Real integration is not accomplished just by having an African-American family living next door. When I identify with the aspects of myself that are liberated by my contacts with people of different backgrounds, and progressively see these other people as my people… when I have thrown off the cultural numbness around discrimination, and once again personally feel the pain of racism and cannot completely rest while my brothers and sisters are being oppressed…. then l, not just the neighborhood, am getting integrated.

 

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My World

When I was little (pre-school) we took a couple of summer vacations to my Aunt Fay’s farm in Iowa. I never really remembered those vacations very specifically, but they always lay magically in my memory, with hazy, enchanted pictures of playing in the barns and fields. I knew that Iowa had been very different from the west side Chicago neighborhood where I lived until age three, or the little suburban development where I spent the rest of my young years.

That little suburban development, though – about fifteen homes called Circle Drive – was at first mostly surrounded by woods and fields (progressively built on in ensuing years), and a good-sized creek maybe 200 yards back in the woods. To me at this tender age, these little woods felt like a wonderland. They were safe enough and small enough that, from fairly early ages, our mom let us wander them at will. That woods behind my house was so much a part of my psychological safe space that, as I grew and the demands of the world closed more in on me, I developed a fairly extensive fantasy about a magnificent underground world, beneath the forest floor, which I could access through a hidden elevator concealed in a tree. From this underground domain, I could take a wonderful little one-person submarine out into that creek, and from there have access to the rest of the world.

By the time I reached high school age, the woods around our house were mostly gone, and my magical kingdom also lost in the mists of my adolescent consciousness.  I went to high school and college in the city, worked for a year after college in the city, and then married and lived in another part of the city. This was in South Shore, an integrated neighborhood on the South Side.

The cultural richness of this neighborhood – and living right by Lake Michigan – and being newly married were about all the excitement I was ready for then, and I really did love wandering along the lake.  But it was still city.

We moved then to Rochester, NY for my graduate work. This was a whole different kind of city, much smaller and with much better access to pretty countryside.  We started to camp and then backpack.  As a graduate student and an elementary school teacher, we had long summer vacations. State parks, open countryside, and then national parks in the Rockies and Maine made a deep impression on us.  We spent much of each school year planning the next summer’s adventures.

But perhaps as strong in how it affected my experience of the land was a little street in our neighborhood. We were in an old neighborhood, and near us some Amish-like religious sect owned a couple of acres of land. The street behind it was a narrow little lane, the trees there were very old, and the people who tended the enormous vegetable gardens dressed in old-fashioned clothes.  I walked over there almost every day, to shake off the mental and emotional stress of graduate school.  I found that my mind would get very soft and relaxed and quiet when I reached that street. The unspoiled beauty and other-era feeling of that little section evoked a quality of consciousness that was consistently restorative to me.

Our graduate class (c.l969-73) was going through the same kinds of political and lifestyle changes as university students around the country.  We and our faculty did a pretty thorough job of alienating each other, and graduate school progressively felt like a war zone.  In my third year, I had to spend several months intensively studying for the “prelim exams” that we took before beginning a doctoral dissertation.  This basically meant confining myself to my little study area at home, during most of my free hours.  On top of other personal changes I was going through at the time (including lots of marital stress), this period was exceptionally difficult for me. I felt like my spirit was dying.

I took my exams at the end of February, and early in March started having a recurring dream. The first times it was pretty simple, and then got more elaborate each night. “I’m walking down a country lane (much like the one near my home). Everything is very drab, gray, and lifeless. I notice just a little stirring in the underbrush around me. This activity increases gradually, and eventually I notice little birds moving around. The more I look, the more of them there are, and I progressively notice their beautiful colors, until finally the whole scene is awash with vibrantly colored, melodically chirping, very friendly birds. I am extremely happy.” I knew that this dream heralded the return of spring to my soul.  It has repeated after a couple other especially hard winters.

After graduate school, I took a job teaching in a liberal arts college in the lovely hills of the southern tier of New York State – really the north end of Appalachia.  We, as many other faculty, lived in an old farm house that we were fixing up.  We had never lived in such a beautiful area, and did more hiking, cross country skiing, etc., than ever.

We ran this back-to-the-Iand trend to its ultimate extreme with a move to a little farmhouse on the shore of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. My wife had always dreamed of living up there and, on a lark, I responded to an ad for a psychologist in a mental health center in Amherst. They flew us up, found a teaching job for her, and within two months we were there.

The Fundy shore is raw, wild, and in some ways inhospitable.  But the fog and the brisk winds off the water were like a spiritual tonic for me.  I felt like that wind, which frequently blew up when those fifty-foot tides started to roll in, was purifying me, strengthening me, blowing away the unnecessary and leaving only the core of my character.

No surprise to many of our friends, Nova Scotia finally felt a little too foreign and far from home.  We moved back to Syracuse, NY – a city, but hilly and green and with great access to country.  My last year there – several years divorced by then – I lived on a lovely farm, only 25 minutes from my downtown office.

When work called me to move back to Chicago, I made a mental deal with myself to cope with the idea of the big city.  I would buy a motorcycle and use this as my getaway vehicle to get out of the city and into country as often as possible. Well, you really have to go a ways to get out of Chicago, the motorcycle never materialized, and I was back to Lake Michigan being my best bet for being with the beauty of mother earth.

But it wasn’t enough wild space for me.  About three years after moving back to Chicago, I started having recurring dreams of hiking through a vast, hilly wilderness area.  Even from the first occurrence, this area (which I don’t connect with anyplace I have ever been) felt wonderfully familiar.  Progressively, as the dream recurred, I would recognize particular valleys as I walked through them, and feel the anticipation of getting to some of my favorite, highest, most remote areas.  This place really felt like home.

I knew this dream spoke to my longing for a richer connection with the earth – for a counterbalance to the urban life I was leading.  Fortunately, I was able, over the next few years – with these dreams spurring me on – to tack on some vacation time to a few of my business trips, and get into some mountains and back to the ocean.

I now live in Cincinnati, a town that feels to me like Syracuse for its hilliness, greenness, and easy access to nice country.

At the end of my block is a little gate into the Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum – one of the biggest and nicest parks the city has to offer.  When I walk through that gate, several times a week, I leave behind the city and enter a world of nature.  I do this ritual slowly, lingering over this enchanted transition.  The huge trees and voluptuous curves of the hills just inside the cemetery walls charm me in a way that must be close to the magic I felt as a five-year-old going back in the woods.

I long to live in the country again, and promise myself that someday I will.  Meanwhile, I joined the Sierra Club and keep intending to go on more of their local hikes and country bike rides – maybe once I’ve got this book finished.  But I do get to the cemetery and the other city parks. My drive to Louisville twice a week to see my son goes through beautiful northern Kentucky hills and farmland. And my vacations get me back to the land – like our trip (my mom, son and his friend) to the YMCA family camp in northern Wisconsin last year.

We humans live in relationship with our land.  Some of us like cities or hate camping or both.  Some of us have never really been exposed to hiking or biking or think of them as things we did as kids, but have put away for more adult pursuits. But I believe it takes active suppression to deny our need for a relationship with the natural environment, in much the same way that it takes psychological denial to pretend we have no need for interpersonal intimacy.

Apparently some monks manage to live without close personal relationships and stay healthy, but we who live less spiritually rarefied lives need close personal relationships, or we get sick.  We can throw ourselves into our work or golf or sexual affairs and pretend we aren’t sick, but we are just proving how sick we have become.  Similarly with the earth. It is in our nature to require a close, nurturing relatedness with it. Whether we get that relatedness on a daily basis by living in the country or walking in the cemetery, or less frequent local exposures augmented by massive occasional doses at the seashore or in the wilderness, we need to find a style of living that supports our connection with our mother.

And, with that common mother of ours so besieged now by the excesses of our modern life styles, we are faced with another choice. We can suppress the knowledge we all have that our mother is suffering – maybe dying – and claim we are too busy, too stressed-out, just have too much else going on. Or we can confront the seriousness of this situation and all the feelings it stirs in us, and progressively find ways – political, educational, and/or personal – to make a difference.

Suppression of any kind is dis-integrative. Sometimes we need to do it, during short-term crises. While I finish writing this book, I am inadequately responding to my needs to get to the country, and doing an even poorer job of taking a stand for the future of the environment. But I have to redress those imbalances soon. Growing our integrity, our wholeness, means progressively reclaiming our relatedness to those parts of ourselves we have denied. We humans naturally relate by extending love and creativity. How well we feel and live out our love for this home of ours is a real indicator of our personal health.

 

 

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I Get That Old Feeling

I was sitting in a restaurant with several colleagues, out to lunch from a course we were taking together. We were in downtown Cincinnati’s funkiest California-style restaurant. The food was excellent, the company really very good – and I wasn’t there.

Shortly after we got there, I became totally pre-occupied with a lovely young woman sitting just in my line of sight, two tables over, against the wall.  At first I didn’t understand why she riveted my attention so. Sure, she was very attractive, but …there’s something hauntingly familiar about her.

Oh, now I get it….

She looks somewhat like, and expresses herself very much like an old girlfriend, Nancy. Both of them very animated, lots of gestures, eyes completely alive, easy to laugh – throwing her head back, a rich full laugh. I know she’s not really Nancy – I haven’t seen Nancy in almost 10 years, and this woman is younger than she was when I knew her back then.  But I am not full of logic right now. What is it that is sweeping over me?

Funny thing – I had been talking about Nancy just a couple of days ago. That was a very powerful period for me, a time of wonders. My intuition, which I had mostly resisted for the first 30-some years of my life, was coming very alive, in a way that it had not been in the intervening years.  Lately – the last few months, since moving to Cincinnati and driving a stake in the ground towards a more rooted life, these experiences have been happening again with greater frequency – knowing right when a friend is going to call, or them knowing that with me, lots of enchanted coincidences that leave me feeling warm and safe in this new town.  I feel somehow connected back to that other time, and have been feeling a need to describe it to someone.  .

Meanwhile, back in the restaurant, they are playing our song.  Honest to God, I don’t know how it happened. And it’s not Frank Sinatra or Neil Young – it’s this real obscure Iittle New Age tape from before there was a music style called New Age, which I lost shortly after that romance, and have never heard since.  At a time when all my senses have been heightened by my whole environment being new, and my recently renovated intuition is telling me that big developments are awaiting me if I PAY ATTENTION, this situation opened a door to my unconscious that I just glided through.

I’m not fully sure now exactly where I went – I mostly just went tilt. Why had the universe conspired to hit me with this two-by-four? I probably never sorted this question completely, but, in talking at length with a friend the next I got this far, and this is probably all I needed.

I really had left a significant piece of my unconscious energy back with this relationship with Nancy. This had, sure enough, been a time of powerful awakening for my intuition. And whenever I asked my inner voice for guidance about this romance, which was scaring the daylights out of me with its power, the word I got was “Go for it – this is good.”

Notice that my inner voice never actually said, “This is it, Jack…the real thing…the Big One – you’re going to marry this woman! ” No, none of that came from my intuition – just from my addictive longings (wishful thinking). So, I put way more weight (heaviness) on this connection, which really would have been better served with more lightness – and also scared myself a lot more than was really necessary.

So when, in large part because of all this extra baggage, the relationship crashed and burned in somewhat spectacular fashion, I was ticked not only at romance, but also at my own inner voice. I felt betrayed. I even kind of knew that it was my romance addiction, not my intuition, that had tricked me – but that didn’t stop me from taking out my hurt feelings on this whole period of my life. So, since aside from Nancy the clearest feature of this period was the opening up of my intuitive voice, this had to go, too.

No wonder, then, that I needed, now, to return to that time and forgive it, in order to recover the energies frozen in that traumatic period, in order to re-integrate the parts of me walled off back there.

We all have periods of our lives, experiences, relationships, places where some of our energy has stayed stuck. Maybe it was from unfulfilled hopes, or personal embarrassment, humiliation, or loss of face. Maybe it was experiences that deeply confused us, or we never quite figured out. Maybe there were levels happening which we never consciously acknowledged, even to ourselves, but they were operating on us nonetheless.

A Freudian clinical supervisor of mine used to like the image that we start out our lives with a certain number of psychic soldiers, and situations like those described above require some of those soldiers to deal with. If we deal with the situation successfully, resolve the confusion or conflict, retrieve and dust off our self-esteem, and generally let go of the experience, we bring our soldiers back into formation to fight another day.

It’s an unfortunately militaristic and mechanistic image – seeing ourselves as systemically connected with life indicates that we are not cut off, in our own self-contained unit. We can pick up soldiers along the way. In a synergistic relationship, where we are mutually supporting each other’s growth, each party can continually get stronger.

But there’s a lot useful still about the image for me.  If we are to be truly integrated, we need to retrieve those energies we have left behind, learn the lessons we didn’t fully learn back then, forgive those aspects of the world, others, and ourselves that we didn’t know how to accept back then.  “Let sleeping dogs lie” is a useful maxim only if you are happy staying on the porch.  But if you want to go exploring all the exciting regions of the property, you want to wake those dogs up and take them with you for company.

How do you know where to start?  Which unfinished business is most ripe for me, right now?  Well, mostly you can’t know, in your usual way of knowing.  But we do have a faculty for knowing this kind of information.  I have been referring to it as the intuition or “inner voice”, and it is the best friend our growth process has.  Others refer to it as a “gut sense” or “felt sense”.  It is not “women’s intuition”; it is actually equally available to us guys, although we tend more to value linear, analytic thinking.  Many of us have chronically undernourished the kind of soft, receptive inner states that can open the intuition’s door.

Most of us have had at least some experiences with this kind of “gut sense”, when we know without knowing how we know.  <A later section will describe this in greater detail – and how to tell the real thing from self-delusion.> Radical Integrity in all its forms – everything we do to reclaim parts of our self – will nurture this inner voice.

 

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I Found a New Rest Room

I found a new restroom on our floor at work the other day. There’s one just outside the door of our department, but it’s only a two-holer, and even when one of those is available, it’s not always environmentally desirable. I have assumed, during the 6 months our office has been located on this floor that there is another men’s room on the floor below, but I always seem to be running, and have never bothered to explore.

Our office is a left turn off the elevator, and it never really occurred to me ’til the other day that I have never set foot onto the other half of the 6th floor, never made that right turn or taken time to go exploring. Our end is pretty boring, typical office building, I never catch up on my to-do’s for the day – who would think of exploring?

The other day I saw the young guy making his mail pick-up rounds through our office, just moments before I remembered I wanted an envelope to go out in this afternoon’s mail. So I chased down the hall, looking for him. No mail person – must have just missed him – but, voile! a second men’s room on our floor. Three stalls, a really more interesting color scheme – I was honestly a little tickled by the find.

And thoughtful about it. Over the last few days, it has rolled around in my head, as a symbol of all the possibilities we don’t find, don’t see, because we assume they are not there or could not be there – or just don’t look. For me there is something a little enchanted about that silly men’s room – it reminds me that this world is full of surprises, full of discoveries, if we are willing to let it be that way.

A bunch of years ago, I was teaching at a little liberal arts college in upstate New York – my first job out of grad school. My wife and I were renting a lovely farmhouse in a perfectly enchanting location on the side of a big hill, far off any major road. It was exactly the kind of bucolic retreat we had dreamed of.

But my year had been totally dominated by the rigors of balancing a new job and trying to finish my dissertation – that huge, frightening, infuriating last hurdle of graduate school. I did not miss the irony that my chronically stressed-out state, in this peaceful country setting, revolved around research on meditation and relaxation techniques. This was good for an occasional laugh, but I was not laughing a lot, overall. I knew that, if I didn’t push this hard to finish this oppressive project, I could easily never do it – there were plenty of stories like this in our department. And so I pushed on.

Once in a while, we would break the uninspiring drill of my routine by inviting friends over for dinner. On these occasions, we would go for long walks with the dogs or, if we were in a real festive mood, fire up the tractor that our landlord had in the barn and go roaring over the hills of the large farm that belonged with this house (and was being farmed by neighbors). On these occasions, my eyes would open wide and I would once again be confronted by the fabulous beauty that surrounded me every day, but which I walked around so often oblivious of. Future years, when I lived in cities, I have often dreamed of the ability to just open my front door and be in such a spectacular setting – how could I have made such relatively erratic use of it?

Thomas Pynchon, in a novel called y, described a mysterious underground mail system. He never explained how or by whom it worked, but messages addressed to you could pop up anywhere in your environment – under a rock, on the back of a door someplace where you would find them, at just the right time.

I think that God, whatever that is, works like that. This life around us leaves us messages – sometimes subtle, sometimes the 2×4 to the back of the head, giving us information that we are needing. Sometimes it’s a clue towards some puzzle we are trying to sort out. Other times it’s simply a reminder that this crazy-quilt of life really does fit together, that we are not alone and unloved, that in fact things are under control. I call these little messages “God winking at us” – and I don’t usually see them when I’m not in a mood to see them. Someone who was in a more cynical state would call them coincidences or not see them at all.

Like these 3 things that happened after I interviewed for my AT&T job, but before it was offered to me:

– The guy who interviewed me for the job did so partly based on some successes I had had doing management training for Arthur Andersen. One day, a guy ran by me in a t-shirt with big logos from its two sponsors – Arthur Andersen and AT&T.

– A day or two later, I pulled up at a stop light behind a car that had two bumpers stickers. One for Mothers against Drunk Driving had the MADD acronym that always reminded me of my name, and next to it, one that said “AT&T, the right choice”. When I pulled next to the car, it was a good friend. She didn’t work for AT&T, and I never did get around to asking her why she had that bumper sticker.

– I went to a workshop led by Harvey Jackins, the creator of the co-counseling methodology that has been such a mainstay in my life starting about 17 years before this period I’m describing. Harvey was doing a demonstration session with one guy in front of the group. This man had obviously been working hard on himself for a long time, and was real clear about how to support people, to respect and empower them. Harvey, who knew me, but did not know I was in the crowd or of the job I was hoping to get, made an editorial comment to the crowd that, need people who are this clear working in big companies AT&T, where they can help those systems change.”

All coincidences? Maybe. But I would find that a very impoverished way of looking at my world.

About 8 years ago, during a somewhat workaholic period that was characterized by not enough intimacy in my life and some real discouragement around its possibility, I was one day buying curtains for my new apartment at a local department store. The lovely young woman taking my purchase looked so strongly into my eyes as she took my money that I was a little wounded by her beauty, but then took my change and started to leave the store.

Not realizing what was really going on in me, I “remembered” before I got to the door that I actually needed one more item from this department. The young woman and I exchanged a little laugh over my forgetfulness, and this time she looked even more deeply into my eyes as we completed the transaction. This time as I walked away I was finally conscious of the charming way she was flirting with me, and of how attracted to her I was. I told myself that I would return the following Sunday and talk further with her.

“You fool” I answered myself, “you don’t know she’ll be here again next Sunday.  Don’t let your shyness stop you – go back and talk with her,” She started to giggle immediately as she saw me returning to her cash register. I laughed also, nervously, and told her it wasn’t my usual style to try to pick up strange women, but I was by God going to try to get her phone number. She was shyly delighted to give it to me, and so we began one of the most charming, healing relationships of my life.

I will always cherish some of the evenings we spent doing our work together in my apartment – she was finishing a master’s degree in special education. On a couple of occasions, I came around the corner from my little office to find her sprawled sweetly in sleep over her books on my sofa. Nothing could have added a warmer, more connected feeling to my life in that period.

Ever since then, I have held on to a little card I wrote after one of those study sessions, saying that “God has got love stashed for us behind every bush, door, and cash register – if we are just willing to get beyond our shyness or cynicism and let it in.”

 

 

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I Don’t Really Like You

Mark Briggs was sitting in the big easy chair in my office.  I was in the rocker, my favorite spot.  I loved my therapy office – it was warm and bright and comfortable, more like a living room than the stuffy professional building you had to go through to get to it.

But this conversation was not feeling warm or comfortable.  Mark and I knew each other through a mutual network of friends and colleagues.  Lately we were both involved with a team of people developing a wholistic health center there in Syracuse, and had seen each other at several meetings.

Mark was setting up a practice of counseling, and several of his contacts had suggested that I was a good person for him to network with.  So he had set this appointment to come by and have us get to know each other better.

“I knew we had to sit down and really talk to each other”, he had just said, “because I would really like you to help me get my practice going, but the problem is I don’t really like you.”

I was not accustomed to people being quite so confrontive with me.  I’ve always been basically a nice guy, and at that point in my life was fairly compulsively nice.  So people usually honored that implied contract and treated me nice, also.

The thing I came to realize about Mark was that he was not being aggressive or even unfriendly – he was just telling the truth.  He genuinely wanted and intended to create a good relationship with me, and believed he had to start by getting this off his chest.

Funny thing was, though I had never been conscious of this before, I started to realize as we talked that I really hadn’t liked Mark very much, either.  I had never seen this confrontive side of him before, but had rubbed me the wrong way, for reasons I still couldn’t quite sort out.  So I came clean, also.  We both had a good laugh over this, if a bit awkward.

We then went on to talk about what each of us was up to professionally.  I acknowledged a real curiosity about a couple of his specialty areas, suggested a couple other professionals with whom he might want to network, and we made an appointment to talk again.

Three months later, Mark was subletting an office in my suite.  Two months after that, when he broke up with his girlfriend, he moved in with me for a couple of months.  Our professional and friendship connection was extremely important for me that next year, while I was still in Syracuse.  We remain strongly connected now, ten years later, and I value him as one of the biggest influences in my life.

Mark took the risk that, by being innocently open with me, good things could come about.  He really trusted that honesty was the best policy.  He wasn’t trying to make me the bad guy – he also really believed that, if he came clean with his feelings, they could change.  And so they did.

The day Mark was moving into my house, my sonTerry (then age six) and his friend Eric were playing in the back yard.  Mark came tearing up the drive with a carload of boxes and did a sharp U-turn in the front yard, parking in front of the front porch.  I was weeding the garden on the other side of the driveway. I stood up, took a long, deep breath, and said something very uncharacteristic for me – over a lot of internal resistance.  (“This is no way to start a new housemate situation…If I say this, it will create bad vibes that we may never get over”, etc.)

“Mark.”  “Yeah.”  “I don’t like you driving so fast near the house – there are kids around here.”  What felt like a long pause.  “Thanks.”  And he meant it.

One day, a couple of weeks later, Mark and I were having one of many conversations about women.  Me: “Well, one thing I know is, the next time I get married, I want it to be someone who won’t judge and criticize me.”  Mark: “Dream on.”  “What?”  “John, that’s what we do when we get bent out shape with each other – we judge and criticize.  You’re never going to find someone who won’t ever do that to you – or who you won’t ever do that to.”

He was not trying to be cruel in destroying my fantasy – he was, again, just telling the truth as he knew it.  I was apparently ready to face this hard reality; I think some other, not-yet-integrated part of my brain already knew it.  So this was one of the clearest, most immediate and thorough moments of learning I can remember – even if it felt kind of disillusioning at the time.  That pipedream really went away.  I’ll always be grateful to him for not holding back this part of his truth.

My style around truth-telling has changed a lot over the last ten years.  Most people who know me well would probably still say I’m a nice guy (though I really don’t even much like this label any more).  If pressed a little further, though, many of them would also report that I say a lot of things directly that most people wouldn’t – and that this usually leads to valuable outcomes.  The value isn’t only to the friend, colleague, or management team I’m dealing with.  The bigger value is to me.

Every time I choose to tell my truth, maybe over the top of some anxiety that people will feel hurt, won’t like me or hire me back, etc. – every time I trust that, even if I don’t say it perfectly or even have a totally solid grip on what’s real or most important – every time I give others the gift of knowing directly what is in my mind, we create the possibility of moving together further down the road.  When I withhold too much, we don’t know how to move the ball, because we don’t know where the ball is – and the interior of my mind gets kind of screwy.

 

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