Free Associating and the Analyst’s Couch

Photo: Jimmy Bay

I’ve been clicking away from this screen on and off for a while now, maybe half-hour or so. I’m reminding myself of a moth — the way it will flutter and bang up against the same light over and over again. What is it trying to do or get, anyway? And why is “The Moth” storytelling show called “The Moth”? This, my friends, is what we call free associating.

I had a great therapist back in Burlington. Well, I had a few great therapists back in Burlington, but the one I am thinking of now was actually an analyst, with a couch for lying on facing away from her and everything. After my initial self-consciousness faded, I loved it. I loved her disembodied voice behind me, and how I could lie down there and just start sobbing, or be quiet for a long time. I loved how we unraveled some things that have remained deeply instructive to me, some fundamental ways of relating to myself and life that I came to see, during that year or so, I no longer needed.

Free associating has its benefits.

Friends with benefits, for example, is the next thought I have. The woman I launched into relationship with when I first came out — we tried that for a while, as a way of tempering the fact that being in a capital-R Relationship kept not working, but on the other hand we couldn’t seem to stay away from each other, either. But it was too murky for me, that territory. Turns out I didn’t much want to have sex with my friends — and that she and I weren’t really friends at all.

Stretched out on Jeanne P.’s couch is where I began to understand that I was deeply conditioned to look inward. All my life, I’d had the sensation that my internal landscape was something of a kaleidoscope; you could look and look and look and get lost in there, always more hidden, more to seek, and an inherent sense of something being missing. In a way, this was my safest place. I could maintain a focus on relationships with other people, but at the end of the day, I was alone with myself. Life with someone else, truly being seen and met and known, felt wistfully impossible.

It’s no coincidence that one of the poems I related most to was Emily Dickinson’s #640, which begins:

I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the Key to –

I wanted more than anything to be alone, or so I thought.

I still love being alone. As I write this, my wife is sitting across the room. Her back is to me; she’s at her computer, too. We are in the same room, breathing the same air. The kids are at my sister’s house with their dad, celebrating the Jewish new year with a potluck feast. I got sick this week and had to forego services and gatherings.

Our third anniversary is in six days, though we’ve been an item for closer to six years. In those six years, I have learned how to maintain my relationship with myself AND to wholly give myself to another. To get to have room for my needs, my experience, my desire, and my emotions AND be present for hers. That these aren’t mutually exclusive was a learning curve for me.

Bottom line: We all have real lives. There is no greener grass. And for the first time perhaps ever, I am not locked up inside of myself but rather right here. I’m free associating and giving myself permission — to to write, to free associate, to ramble, to see what happens when I explore the connections between things without an agenda. Permission is cool that way, isn’t it? And even cooler is that we get to give it to ourselves. Thanks, self!

Much of my writing about my kids these days happens behind closed doors, i.e. in secret spaces where I can write freely about my experiences as a parent without risking my kids’ trust or betraying their privacy. It’s such a huge part of life, and yet not one I write terribly much about publicly at this point. I know this is true for many women who started out blogging years ago when our little ones were, in fact, little. Now, they are not little. They are big. They are 11 and nearly 15, and there is plenty I know I don’t know about their complex inner lives and their day-to-day experiences. I try to be present to and available for them without hovering or smothering, though the latter can be a challenge for this Jewish mama who favors hugs and sharing.

See? That was a complete non sequitur. The inevitable has happened: I don’t know what I’m writing about. Kind of like towards the end of the therapy session when you can’t quite track how you got here, what you came in thinking about. I stand up and pop my sternum — it’s sore from so much sneezing and coughing over the past couple of days, but I’m on the mend.

I’m getting hungry. I glance at the clock. There is no billable hour here, no astronomical fee, and no analyst sitting behind me taking notes, nodding, occasionally making an observation or asking an insightful question. There is just me and the sound of the keys and the quiet in the room and the acceptance that this is it. This is not only what I said I wanted — it’s actually what I want.

Surfing Ocean and Sky: Mary Oliver, Whitman, and Synchronicity

And here we are, gliding along the last days of the year. Taking (time) off is all the lovelier for its strangeness.

And here we are, gliding along the last days of the year. Taking (time) off is all the lovelier for its strangeness.

The first dream happened in the afternoon. It was Friday, December 23. As we do most days, Mani and I took a nap after lunch. But before I tell you this dream, I need to tell you about part of a conversation I had that morning, with a long-standing writing coaching client who has also become a friend and beloved human.

We wrap up our hour-long call, then linger as we often do. We talk a bit about what kind of support she needs for her writing as we begin 2017, and I mention some of the things that are on my mind around my own life and work.

At one point, she says, “If I may…”

To which I respond, “Please do….”

And so she tells me that in the year we’ve been talking every single week by phone, she in her home office and me in my kitchen or living room “office,” she has somehow never before noticed the framed photograph that now catches her eye. It is a picture of the sky. Big, expansive, vast, wide-open sky.

I take a breath and tell her how perfect it feels, like a reading I didn’t even ask for. I joke that I should be the one paying her, rather than the other way around.

And then she says something so beautiful.

You are the sky. And you are the ocean, too. We need you.

I sit with this for a moment, tears in my eyes. I feel the impulse to deflect it, to say something funny or self-deprecating. But I don’t. I take it in. And then I thank her and say, “I need you, too.”

**

A few hours later, Mani and I crash hard. I intend to rest for maybe 45 minutes or so, but when the timer goes off on my phone (the alarm doesn’t work, so I’m always doing the  math and setting a timer), I swiftly swipe it off without resetting it. It’s in this next interval of sleep that I really go under.

I find myself in a dream where I am body surfing the most glorious waves — they are huge, powerful, and generous without being scary or threatening, and I am moving at the speed of ocean. Then I am soaring, too, over sand — it lifts me like air and I feel like I’m flying, unbridled, one with sky, salt, sea, and land. Not a single object or obstruction stands in my way. At one point, a guy on a bike approaches behind me, and I just let him pass.

(Later, there is some confusion — it seems this incredible experience has deposited me in the student center at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley and I have to figure out how to get back to Amherst.)

But that part of the dream — I want to call it a passage — was extraordinary in its embodiment of movement and being.

I wake up and realize what has happened, what I’ve experienced.

I was the sky. I was the ocean, too.

**

The next day, Saturday the 24th, we pack up for a mini vacation I’ve surprised Mani with for the first few nights of Hanukkah, to an Airbnb in Cambridge. We get there in time to pick up some groceries just before everything closes for Christmas. The place we’ve chosen is perfect — small but clean and cozy, smack in between Fresh Pond and Harvard Square.

I have to sit on my hands not to reach out to everyone I know in the Boston area, knowing that this time is ours alone and trusting that 2017 will bring opportunities to connect with friends, perhaps offer readings from my new book, and lead workshops. Ideas percolate and I let them, without racing to write anything down.

I share a picture on Facebook of the most fabulous display of Christmas lights, with these words, alluding to yesterday’s dream:

lightsI’m sitting in our Airbnb (not the house in the photo!) eating chipotle chicken mac & cheese from a Whole Foods take-out carton, on a quiet street in a neighborhood filled with lights. We had a festive family dinner last night, and now my kiddos are with their dad and his family up in Vermont. I took a nap this afternoon and had an extraordinary dream–so vivid–in which I was body surfing ocean, sand, and sky. I may have to write about it.

But for the next few days, the plan is to read, rest, and just be. The darker the night, the brighter and more beautiful and essential these over-the-top lights seem to me. I’m so grateful for this community of friends and writers–you know who you are, but I hope you also know that you anchor me and bring so much meaning, purpose, connection, and joy into my life.

**

The next morning, I make us coffee and sit down to start reading “Upstream” by Mary Oliver, a gift from my parents. I reach page 23, an essay called “Of Power and Time,” a timeless piece of writing that I will return to again and again for the rest of my days. I underline at least 50% of it as I read, beginning with the opening lines of the second paragraph:

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in. 

She writes of the ways in which not only the world interrupts us, but how we interrupt ourselves, something she calls “a darker and more curious matter.”

I take a picture of these lines and text it to my writing friend, who gets it right away and responds in kind:

Jena – THE SKY!!!

I haven’t yet told her about the sky-ocean-sand surfing dream. My sense of contentment is sudden and complete. In this moment, I have everything I need.

contentment

Later in the same essay, I nearly burst out crying and laughing at the same time. I have just put the final touches on my third, self-published collection of poems. After some deliberation, a title poem rose to the surface and gave the book its name: Why I Was Late for Our Meeting. I wrote this particular poem last summer. The meeting I was late for? A coaching call with my sky-writing friend.

Page 30:

If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

I am momentarily dismayed not to have read these words in time to include them as an epigraph to the new poems. And then quickly, this is replaced by an immeasurable sense of joy and synchronicity. Because really — how marvelous is this, to be dipping into the same reservoir of knowing, as a poet I so deeply respect and admire. I tell Mani I must find a way to give her a copy of the book!

**

That first night in Cambridge, I dream a statement. It goes something like this:

To ask questions and not assume — this feels like love.

I wake remembering it — almost. The wording is off a bit, but the meaning is clear. I don’t know how the speaker was in the dream, though those of a Jungian persuasion would argue that it’s a moot point; the whole dream is the dreamer.

I pour a second cup of coffee and return to the window seat to  keep reading. I reach the essay called “Sister Turtle” and read, on page 57, this line:

To enjoy, to question–never to assume, or trample.

Oliver is writing about “the responsibility to live thoughtfully and intelligently.” I shudder slightly, as if I’ve been caressed by the softest touch. Once again, I know I am right where I need to be. Later, in “Some Thoughts on Whitman,” she shares the first lines of his glorious “Song of Myself,” a poem I first read in its entirety nearly 20 years ago, when I entered an MFA program and lived not two miles from where we’re staying.

I celebrate myself, 
And what I assume you shall assume, 
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. 

Whitman’s poetry is incantatory — a word my grad school advisor assigned to my work, much to my delight — and intent, as Mary Oliver notes, on “[forcing] open the soul.” She goes on:

He was after a joyfulness, a belief in existence in which man’s inner light is neither rare nor elite, but godly and common, and acknowledged. For that it was necessary to be rooted, again, in the world.

**

I mark this passage and write “lineage,” underlined twice in the margin. I am of and from this belief; it drives my writing and my work. To be flung wide open, unguarded and real. To keep turning over the stones and jewels, never knowing where some shard of light may be revealed, even when the task seems redundant and questionable. To crouch by the edges of my everyday life, as Mary Oliver does near her beloved Blackwater Pond, “utterly quiet and half-hidden.” To coax soul from its perch and into my open palm. To insist on light — mine and yours, common, acknowledged, and essential.

fresh-pond-1

There is a rumor of total welcome among the frosts of the winter morning. – Mary Oliver

The second morning of our getaway, I go for a run around Fresh Pond. I pay for it later; my lower back is not happy with me. But it’s worth it at the time. Kids on scooters riding ahead of the grown-ups, lots of people with their dogs, and pairs of friends or couples all circumambulate the pond in holiday-week leisure. I am glad to be alone but among them.

**

The third morning, I don’t run, but instead venture a few blocks up the street to a bakery that caught my eye. I bring my journal and sit writing, people watching, and caffeinating while Mani sleeps in a little.

I notice my slight anxiety about taking time “off” from working, and watch as my handwritten words unfurl across the creamy, blank pages:

Trusting people to wait for me. Trusting that the world won’t abandon me if I rest… Keep your hand moving, mama, and see what it is really like to be all the way here, deeply and without reservation. That is the practice. That is the work.

**

Speaking of trust, we decide to splurge and stay one additional night.

Now it is the evening of Tuesday, December 27. We’ve brought with us two canvas bags filled with magazines to cut up. At home, Mani does this somewhat regularly, but it has been ages since I did anything visual, and I’m out of practice. This is humbling and a good reminder of where many people are when they first approach my writing groups. Just start, I tell myself. And keep going, I add.

The first little while is awkward. I cut out words and a few pictures, not sure where it’s going or whether it will amount to anything I like. I glance over at Mani and she seems so relaxed, then remind myself to just stay in it without worrying about the outcome. After all, how can I hashtag things like “creative process” if I myself am unwilling to try new things?

After two hours, I am surprised and pleased and not a little bit amazed. I’ve created something!

collage

Come at evening or at morning. Come when expected or without warning. A thousand welcomes you’ll find here before you. And the oftener you come, the more we’ll adore you.

**

Dreams and images, words on pages written out of order, found right on time, speaking to each other across time zones and zip codes, climates and landscapes, decades of life, centuries, too. All of this happens as if in simulcast, where the linearity of time is illusory and really, we’re all here dipping our spoons into the same pot, sipping and slurping and stirring.

Since Sunday, I’ve read two books — the other was “The Light of the World” by Elizabeth Alexander — and indeed rested my body and mind so as to make room to listen to my soul. This has everything to do, for me, with my service to you, to the world. They are inseparable, neither endeavor complete without the other.

This balance is my lifelong… I almost wrote struggle. But no, that was before. Now, it feels like a gift, one I get to keep opening and giving away and receiving again, never the same twice, yet somehow also unchanging.

**

We’re back home now. The snow is really coming down, as predicted. Mani is doing a meditation beside me before we head over to Northampton, where she has her private yoga session and I will sit in a coffee shop, working on prompts for my next two-week writing group.

What will the new year bring?

Rest and work. Giving and receiving. Love and loss. Practice and outcome. Synchronicity and destiny. Not knowing and knowing. Ebbing and flowing. Ocean and sky, sky and ocean.

One unthinkable without the other.

The Roar Sessions: Rudri Bhatt Patel

The Roar in Solitude
by Rudri Bhatt Patel

Rudri-2“For now she need not think of anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others…
and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.”

– Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

“Listen to the pause.”

My legs are crossed and sweat forms pockets of insecurity in between my fingers. The meditation instructor’s voice vibrates in my ear and her command feels foreign, “Be still. Let your mind embrace the present.” I take a deep breath, inhaling sandalwood incense, my Eternity perfume and the collective restlessness in the air. Closing my eyes, I attempt to focus on now, but instead my mind gravitates toward a list – put damp laundry in the dryer, pick up peanut butter and jelly from the grocery store and pay the $125.00 electric bill.

Again, she says, “Allow your mind to wander. Don’t judge your thoughts.”

I try again. My eyes closed, I inhale deep and exhale with purpose. For a millisecond, the quiet swallows the noise.

It took four decades to attain this single moment.

***

My twenties were spent chasing the noise I thought I craved. I ping-ponged back and forth from law school classes to my part-time bank teller job to my “important” errands. Isn’t this ambition? If you are doing nothing, then are you living? The anxiety flowed in my veins, but recognizing the distinction between doing and being doesn’t materialize until the right epiphany is ushered into your life. You believe this kind of busyness is the one that will crawl into your soul, fill you with contentment and carry you forward. If you aren’t busy, then what are you doing? Does your life mean less?

I pursued the life that appeared accomplished, the one focused on doing, but kept being at the periphery. The words quiet, meditation, solitude were a foreign language – I didn’t pause. In the background noise filled my space. The hum of the radio in my car, the television playing in the background, the need to fill up every single second with something, whether it meant talking on the phone, going to dinner with friends or inventing errands. I kept moving. Because sprinting forward meant achieving. Living with noise offered little opportunity to confront quiet.

***

Pivotal moments twist the landscape of your life in a way you don’t always expect. When I witnessed my father’s illness, I couldn’t ignore the quiet. There is the quiet after hearing the prognosis, “He’s got less than a twenty percent chance to make it through the end of the year.” The quiet slinks into the room while I sat next to my father when he received chemotherapy. Then there is the ultimate quiet. When the body goes. Beat. Beat. Beat. Silence.

My father’s death forced me to reconcile the bridge between noise and solitude.

What was I doing? Was I living?

***

It’s difficult to leave behind a life you thought you craved. To live a life that meant something required confronting the space between the breaths. It meant a slow unraveling, letting the spool of thread roll out of the palm of my hand. A year after my father’s passing, I gave up my legal career. I realized this restless energy wasn’t fulfilling, but taxing.

I started paying attention – to the light that filtered through the blinds, to the sound of my breath in the morning, to the laughter emanating from my daughter’s belly. I began running. I set my alarm in the morning for 5:30 a.m. and managed quiet jogs in my neighborhood. The pink and blue tones of the sky, the rise of the sun and my feet hitting the ground became constant companions. I learned to love the solitude of these moments.

The time in midlife is spent pausing and sitting in silence. Looking at the sunrise. Appreciating the ability to move my limbs. Spending a few minutes a day acknowledging silence. Reading a book. Meditating. Breathing. Eating at a restaurant alone. Acknowledging that the space between and in the breaths is the one that speaks the loudest.

***

I take another deep breath. The meditation class ends with a few more moments of quiet.

I not only hear the roar of silence, but I hear the roar of solitude.

**

RudriRudri Bhatt Patel is an attorney turned writer and editor. Prior to attending law school, she graduated with an M.A. in English with an emphasis in creative writing. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Brain, Child, Role Reboot, The Review Review, The Huffington Post, Literary Mama, Mamalode and elsewhere. She writes her personal musings on her site, Being Rudri, and is currently working on a memoir that explores Hindu culture, grief and appreciating life’s ordinary graces.

**

The Roar Sessions is a weekly series featuring original guest posts by women of diverse backgrounds and voices. Read them all