Small Things

What follows is the eulogy that I gave for a beloved friend, Ellie Conant.

I have never written a eulogy before – and I hope never to have to do so for a young person ever again. I post it here, so that I can share it easily with those who have asked for a copy following her memorial – and because I think Ellie, in her own way, would enjoy advocating together with me, for notions of family that expand beyond blood ties.

 

Ellie was a BIG person. Who lived a BIG life.

But we never really knew that part of her.

We heard tell. We saw the photos and flyers for the huge queer parties she planned and curated. We watched her pace around and gather up her energies the afternoon and evening before an event – and we saw her spent and smeary the day after.

But I can only tell you small stories about her. I could tell you thousands of small stories about her, strung together on stretchy elastic like a candy necklace.

Her life with us was small and close. An inside life in inside voices.

Our children chose Ellie. And she chose them back. The love between them was overwhelming, visceral, and instant. Ellie would ask to come to our house, not to babysit, but to have a play date. Because she had forged an undeniable friendship with our then two and three year old. When she came, it was their time to be together – and David and I were encouraged to get out of their way. So they could do what it  was they did together: watch cartoons and tickle and wrestle and sit on the floor and have pillow fights

So she could cook for them from her mother’s recipes, and feed them as she had been fed. It so difficult to explain what food means in Korean culture – how food is relationship, is love, is family, is interconnection. Food is deep, and Ellie initiated our children into a world of food that connected her to her mother and grandmother and Korean ancestors – and simultaneously connected our children to their Korean birthmother, and grandmother and ancestors.

Early on, when we were out of town traveling to an adoption conference together – Ellie took the kids to a children’s museum walking distance from the hotel, while David and I attended panels discussing the importance of same race mentors in transracial adoptee’s lives. Our daughter in a sling on her back, the boy in a stroller, Ellie was crossing a small bridge on the sidewalk when a car slowed down to yell racist epithets at the three of them out the window. When she told me about it that evening at dinner – she said: “I can’t explain the feeling. Its nothing I ever felt before. I just held them so TIGHT when we got across the bridge, and I knew right then, that I would kill for these kids if I had to, or die for them. I am gonna be sticking by these kids for life.”

And she did. For the rest of her life.

Other memories: Ellie coming back from an afternoon at the playground: “Martha: we were playing pirate, and I’m telling you it went SO DEEP. SO deep. We were IN it – The kids were hollering commands from the deck and I was the first mate and it was just SO DEEP – it like it took me a while to come BACK? I was FEELIN’ IT. Do you know what I mean?”

Ellie at the pool with two kids clinging to the side walls in the shallow end – her freshly dyed purple hair in a hotel shower cap taped to her head to protect it from the chlorine. Ellie at the door with bags and bags of silly toys and sugary treats. Ellie taking the kids on Ellie-adventures – to her beloved seedy-ass Coney Island boardwalk haunts (with her crew drinking “grown up apple juice”) to arcades and kiddie rides and Ferris wheels. Out to dinner and to shoot pool at SuperFine. Bringing girlfriends home to meet the family. Ellie losing her marbles at Christmas buying every game and toy – disregarding all pleas for austerity or simplicity – covering the house with wrapping paper and bows and laughter.

At first, after their play dates – Ellie– zipping up her leather jacket, would pull on her gloves and dash – not knowing how or if she wanted to approach us, or if we would accept all of her, exactly as she was. But slowly, over time she began to linger, longer and longer chatting into the night in front of the fire as the kids slept – cracking open a beer or some soju – our grown up time together becoming as important as play time. We didn’t recognize it at first, but we were becoming a family.

Late at night she would open up sharing her fears, her hopes, her ambitions and dreams and frustrations. She would ask for advice. She would offer support. We celebrated her successes, we fretted and worried a bit and did our best to keep that to ourselves, or try to share it in small ways that would not overwhelm her or drive her away.

And then, one day: David and the kids and I decide to go apple picking – and he recalls that there is an orchard near Princeton where he grew up – we spend the day riding tractors and feeding bunnies and picking apples. Our little girl is stung by a bee in the palm of her hand, after we apply a damp rag to her chubby fist – we linger in the gift shop picking up jars of apple butter and cider vinegar – and I hear the kids call: “Moooom!!!! ELLIE’S HERE!!!! ELLIE IS HERE!!!” No, I say. That doesn’t make sense – “SHE IS!!!! LOOK!!! OVER THERE!!” and before I know it they are running into her arms – she is as surprised and stunned as we are, and nervously introduces us all to the beautiful woman at her side.

“This is my friend Melissa guys!!!”

“ANOTHER ONE? ” my daughter says –

“Shhhhh!” I say – 

and Ellie pulls me aside and whispers: “Its our first date. I mean, in the daytime, so lets just tell the kids she is a friend for now!”

But it is clear, she is not just a friend – and it is also clear that this relationship is going to expand our family, and transform and ground Ellie’s life.

And life unfolds – carving pumpkins, Harvest Moon dinners, fencing class, school concerts, and taekwondo belt tests – “Ellie Night” is every Wednesday – where she and the kids plan a menu and shop and cook together and we all laugh like maniacs.

We were at home together – Literally, and metaphorically.

And when troubles emerge our familial bonds become even more consolidated: She was there for the best times and the darkest days:

She would save our ass when one child had an MRI following a seizure and the other was sent home with lice on the same day my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer.

“Unnie, we are FAMILY. She said. Let me HELP you. You aren’t going to be able to do this alone – care for Maggie and the kids and your clients. Let ME help you take care of Maggie” And she did. She watched home repair shows and the Property Brothers and Judge Judy. She rubbed my mother’s feet – and her chemo-achey muscles and shopped for and cooked any food that she had an appetite for. When my mother became deathly ill, she called me from the ambulance, and stayed with her at the ER until I arrived – saving her life for the time being.

I never had a true sister. Neither did David. It took us a long time to realize that there was a name for the attachments we had to each other – When she and David wrote about our unusual patchwork tribe together in Gazillion Voices Magazine – Ellie’s voice and spirit and our life together was suddenly understood and appreciated by thousands of people. We were a family. We just were.

But a year ago October, when she first fell seriously ill, we knew that we needed to claim our titles: Sister, Unnie, Oppa, Imo, Aunt, Nephew, Niece and no longer side step or finesse who we were to each other.

And I wanted Melissa and Ellie to claim their roles in each other’s life – and intrusively, pre-emptively pre-proposed marriage for them the  day after a cancer diagnosis, the afternoon before  heart surgery.

There are absolutely no words to describe the strength and love and grace that Melissa has shown to Ellie over the course of their lives together – and especially over the past year, the past few months, up to her final days and moments. Loyal, protective, competent, heroic, wise, doting, present. Patient. Devoted. None of these words are enough.

And there are no words to describe what it meant to Ellie to have a family, an inside life with Melissa, and her silly Nano puppy, of her very own.

Small things are the things I will hang onto. The freckle behind her ear. The way she would tease and steer the subject away from any potential source of conflict. Her side-eye, her tiny feet. Her two handed gestures around gift giving and receiving. Her joy in a good meal. The pleasure she took in other people happiness.

Her laugh.

Her. Just her.

And all the small things that she cherished in and around her big, beautiful life.

She wrote “Blood may be thicker than water – but water flows more freely”

We will be bound to you forever, by water.

Thank you Ellie. For every single small moment.

I can never thank you enough.

 

**************************************

I am also happy to offer this as opportunity to ask  again for people to support her legacy project:

Before her death, Ellie spent time thinking about her legacy, the causes and the people on this planet that she most wanted to support – projects that would serve as extension of her core values and passions. She decided that her memory would be most honored by caring for LGBTQ youth in Korea. With the help of Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice we are able to direct donations made in her memory toward a shelter in Korea for LGBTQ youth, as well as other projects.

Please help her extraordinary and nurturing spirit continue to work for change, compassion and liberation in this world.

Please share this post and follow this link to the Astraea donations page, and be sure to indicate that your donation is in memory of Ellie Conant.

Donations will be accepted through June, 2016–both the month of Ellie’s birth and the annual Pride celebration she loved so much. How fitting that we support her in spreading Pride into the world.

  
   
 

  

Keeping Secrets

This piece was previously published at my primary blog: What a Shrink Thinks, as well as by Psychology Tomorrow magazine. 

Kalli was the secret-keeper of Maldinga. Every day the people of Maldinga straggled through the woods to the clearing where Kalli’s cottage stood. They came one by one, never in two or threes. And one by one, they told Kalli their secrets. ~ Kate Coombs, The Secret Keeper. Almost two years ago, when I began […]

http://whatashrinkthinks.com/2013/03/04/keeping-secrets/

One Large Bottle


I’ve been thinking about writing, about being a writer, about writing books, about how and why people write – the professional and psychological functions and processes of writing – and how each writer I’ve met or listened to or worked with writes for different reasons, is immersed in different processes.

Some experience themselves as servants to a sacred Oracle. Others write purely out of their daydreams with little insight or awareness of how the story is connected to their own lives and history. Some write to keep themselves alive. Others feel driven by a need to share their story with an audience. Some write for a living, even if it is a sparse living. Some write as a method of self-regulation, self-exploration, self-help. Some are driven by deep narcissistic injury. Some write to reach others, to persuade, to change the world.

Here is the story of the first book I ever produced:

In 4th grade, after seeing him lead a Shakespeare workshop for elementary school students – I fell madly in puppy love with television actor and teen idol Henry Winkler, aka “The Fonz”.  I wrote long, long letters to him, about his performances, and all the wonderful heroic, kind, generous qualities I imagined he possessed. I confessed my ten year old troubles to him. I shared the solutions I’d found and how I imagined he would be proud of me when I was courageous, or protected someone weaker than myself. After about a year I collected all my heartfelt, “no one will ever understand me except YOU” letters and I stapled them between two pieces of decorated cardboard from a Lays Potato chip box. I wrote, in my very best cursive: “The Collected Winkler-Crawford Letters” on the cover.

It never once crossed my mind to attempt to mail these letters, or share them with a fan club, or to try in any way to get them in his hands.

I knew, even in fourth grade, that the imaginal audience that I was writing to served a symbolic function. I wouldn’t know what to do if I made contact with the actual subject of my devotion. When we moved a year or so later, I hid the book on the closet shelf before we left for good: just in case a girl my same age, facing similar struggles, moved in next, and needed to know that she was not alone.

For me, this is the most sacred aspect of writing: rolling up a message, stuffing it in a bottle and flinging it to the sea as an act of faith in something. As a gift to someone.

Anyone.

But not anyone specific.

Blogging is a way to do that regularly, with hundreds of small bottles, tossed into the sea at random intervals.
It is the actual process of releasing it – blindly casting it out and away, out of my hands, following its own trajectory and landing somewhere or landing nowhere – that feels honorable, a form of obedience.

I can’t see how it’s possible that  this  idiosyncratic process, this weird-ass form of prayer could ever result in something publishable. I’m not sure I feel that I actually own it, after I have released it – or that it belongs to me in anyway. I don’t understand how to have a goal, or an attachment to any specific outcome for  anything I’ve ever written.

I’m not sure I could write at all if it were not an impractical, nonsensical, nearly pointless act of faith.

In Quaker process when you feel compelled to share a message, it isn’t your business to think about who the message is for, or its reception. It’s only your business to articulate the message faithfully.

Maybe it’s for everyone or only one person in ear shot. Or just for you.

Or merely to be faithful.

Full stop.

The outcome is not predictable or even your business.

So, in the past several months I have felt the impulse to work on a much longer, expanded message, to roll up an entire sheath of paper, and to stuff it into a very large bottle.

Or maybe it is time, again, for me to write and sort and gather many letters – and collect them into a stack,
stapled into an old potato chip box, decorated with a fancy calligraphy  and leave it somewhere hidden,  trusting  that it will be found, or will find the person who most needs it.

One copy, one bottle, one ocean.

And if it lands somewhere and is of use to someone: fantastic.

What if I never hear of it again? If it sinks to the bottom of the sea and deteriorates into salt and sand and pulp? Or washes on to some far shore, and someone finds it and discards it? Or decides to make it of use or repurpose it in their own life in some way that I will never ever find out about?

That satifies too – I’ll will have done it for faith’s sake alone.

As silly as that may be, for me that is enough.

The truth is , because of this, that I have a hard time considering myself “a writer.” I experience myself as a work-a-day psychotherapist who writes to keep herself afloat, to make sense of what she has absorbed, to wrest meaning out of the suffering I encounter every work day.

People tell me their secrets – confessing their sins, reaching for reparation, aspiring to live out their callings. The psychotherapeutic process is for me, a spiritual path of relationship, compassion, self-reflection, contemplation, and empathic praxis. It is also a path which has offered me a unique position to observe the ways our own stories intersect and collide with larger historical, generational and cultural myths, the ways that larger cultural trends and beliefs press upon our sense of who we are and tangle themselves up with who we should be. The tangles that tie each life to life.

My work in the office, in writing  is in large part, about untangling and sorting these threads: memory, fantasy, mythology, history, spirituality, culture, archetype, community, and individuality.

A dream:

I am at a quaint, dusty used-bookseller. There is a table near the front window where a mother and a young boy are having tea. I pick up a box from the floor which seems to hold some new kind of Lego construction toy: long tubes that snap together in various colors, used for sorting threads and wires and undersea cables; these pieces extend like a large net or a web around the world yet each through-line, origin and end-point of each thread  can be identified easily. I am thrilled with the toy, and notice, as I show it to the woman sitting near me, that it reads: “This is not a toy. This product is intended for use by responsible adults only.”

Within the dream, I was lucid enough to recognize  that I was immersed in a dream about  writing, researching, and organizing a larger project – a book that tries to sort a complex and large web of interconnection  – about the intersections of spirituality and psychotherapy, of agnostic faith in The Whole and about healing.

I understood this within the dream not only because I was surrounded by beautiful, delicious books with well-thumbed pages, but also because I worked with a poet for many years who struggled with dry spells. This manifested in his dreaming life as unconnected individual Lego “blocks” held in his hands, that were strangely relieving. As we accepted and worked with these blocks and just before the capacity to write returned – we knew it was coming as the poet began to dream of building complex  towers, and all the pieces clicked together.

This is a psychotherapists’ brain: Dreaming of my client’s dreams and trying to make sense of the maze of through-lines that connect us all.

And knowing that we are all connected in ways we cannot easily imagine.

It is too daunting for me to say “my book” or the “book am writing” just as I dare not say I am a writer when I really have just created a peculiar method of prayer to the Unknown. Writing as a way to surrender to the Void.

But maybe I can say this: If I were to write a book, this is the book I would write: A book that explores the ways our unconscious lives impact each other – How my personal story is re-membered, changed by and changes my clients – how my client’s stories seep into my bones and mine into theirs – and how these subtle transformations spread out into the larger world. A book that  tries to identify some of the universalizing unnoticed, unnamed forces that press in on us from the outside and bind us all to each other.

Every one of us.

Whether we recognize our insoluble interconnectedness or whether we don’t.

I don’t know what, if anything, I can actually construct by sorting through these tangled strings (I am cautions of the hubris of Arachne and do not wish to be turned into a spider.) Here is what I do know: I would be sure not to play with these connections frivolously – but to make it of use and to offer up whatever pieces I am able to sort out and snap together as a book, to any interested readers, to my community, my clients, and in service of my own growth. “This is not a toy. This product is intended for use by responsible adults only.”

And then I will search for a large and beautiful bottle.

And I will stand at waters edge, and I will throw it as hard and as far as I can.

Dormant

This is a piece I wrote for What a Shrink Thinks – that in many ways grew out of my work with writers and artists. We need to first assess the function of fallow periods and block, before railing at ourselves. We can often awaken from dormant periods naturally when we respect their larger purposes.

what a shrink thinks

…another mechanism used by some organisms… is that of dormancy, during which an organism conserves the amount of energy available to it and makes few demands on its environment. Most major groups of animals as well as plants have some representatives that can become dormant. Periods of dormancy vary in length and in degree of metabolic reduction, ranging from only slightly lower metabolism during the periodic, short-duration dormancy of deep sleep to more extreme reductions for extended periods of time.    ~ Encyclopedia Britannica 

I spent the summer in a state of pleasant dormancy, following the Lethargian’s schedule:

At 8:00 we get up and then we spend

From 8 to 9 daydreaming.

From 9 to 9:30 we take our early mid-morning nap

From 9:30 to 10:30 we dawdle and delay.

From 10:30 to 11:30 we take our late early morning nap.

From 11:30 to 12:00 we bide our time and then…

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Writers Consultations vs Psychotherapy

We’ve been asked a few times to describe the differences between our writing consultations and psychotherapy:

1) When writers who are blocked contact us, we explore the structures, rituals, habits, routines and expectations they have around their writing processes – and try to consider how these structures, or lack of structure, may need to be realigned to re-establish creative flow again. There is no one system or process that works for every writer – and the assessment skills we have developed as psychotherapists are particularly useful in understanding how needs and processes change over time and in response to external events and stressors.

2) We explore techniques for subverting inhibitions that can create blocks drawn from psychoanalytic theory and assessment (free association, active imagination, dream work) and examine the function of the block itself: Every symptom is an attempt at a solution, and once we understand and honor the protective aspects of the block, better solutions often emerge that allow the words to flow again. We also guide writers into deeper respect for the nature and function of the Unconscious and its relationship to creative work.

3) Together we may explore and ponder fictional characters internal lives – just as we might with a parent who is talking about a child who is having difficulty – to help writers have fuller understanding and deeper empathy, compassion and identification with the characters they are creating.

4) In psychotherapeutic training all therapists begin their work with a supervising therapist – to help them stay available and present with their clients, and address blocks to empathy and intuition with client work. Clinical supervision is not psychotherapy – but focuses on the work of therapy itself. In much the same way that supervision uses and draws on psychotherapeutic understanding and knowledge while respecting the psychological privacy, goals, and history of the therapist – we apply a similar respectful boundary to the personal psyche, goals, history and aesthetic of the writer – focusing on the work of writing itself.

If writers who use our consultation services decide to participate in psychotherapy – choosing to more deeply examine their present-day relationships – we make informed referrals to practitioners we respect.