Monthly Archives: October 2012

My friend B. is a body psychotherapist. She’s explained what this means more than once, but I never quite get a handle on it.1 I gather that, where traditional psychotherapy is focused on talking, body psychotherapy treats us as the soul-body composite we are.

One of the tenets of the discipline is that past trauma can manifest itself, not only in our thought patterns, but in our patterns of movement. So the therapist is trained to tune in on the body language of the client, to sense when his movements reveal something his conscious mind would rather avoid, or when his body is somehow trapped in a pattern it learned from some disaster.

As with most things B. has introduced me to — stevia, glossolalia, aikido — it sounded kooky at first. Due in part to my my father’s inveterate intolerance for any and all forms of bullsh★t, I’ve spent most of my life with my kook-o-meter turned up to eleven. It’s been a tricky business, learning to turn the thing down notch by notch: learning to keep an open mind, as the saying goes, but not so open that my brains falls out.

I owe so much of my kookiness to you, B., and I’m forever grateful.

Like traditional psychotherapy, it seems to me that body psychotherapy is something that anybody could do, but that some people have a natural gift for; a gift which can of course be sharpened by training. We’ve all had (or been) the friend who is always on the receiving end of intense personal revelations, from friends and coworkers and even from strangers on airplanes. That friend is a kind of therapist, or maybe every therapist is a particular kind of friend.

B. is gifted. Her native sensitivity makes it impossible for her to ignore the energy, good and bad, that radiates from people. If I’m in a horrible mood and my roommate C. walks into the room, he’ll be completely oblivious (God bless him). But for B., walking in the door will be like stepping off a lead-lined Chernobyl tour bus. Her Geiger counter is finely tuned, and the gain is all the way up.

I was explaining all this to my dad once (sorry, Abba,2 it may have been a sort of passive-aggressive act of rebellion; I’ve noticed that I seem to enjoy doing things in front of you that I imagine flout the Gershom code) and concluded by saying something like “It seems like a good idea to me. I bet it helps people.” He replied: “Yeah; I think pretty much anything does.”

My father is always lamenting his inability to hand out fatherly words of wisdom. It’s true that when he tries to come up with sage advice, it usually amounts to the Gershom family motto: It could always be worse. But he doesn’t realize how often, when he isn’t trying at all, a phrase of his will stick in my mind, slowly dissolving over the next five or ten years.

It’s fun to talk about our chronic problems as if they were monsters, or maybe dragons: it lends an air of heroism to things that, for anybody on the outside, would seem achingly mundane. It’s also comforting, because a dragon might be big and scary, but one well-placed sword-thrust and the thing is conquered for good.

Solving real problems, or anyway the big ones, is rarely like that. It’s less like killing a dragon and more like kneading3 a huge, heavy lump of dough. You can stop and ask yourself whether you should be using a rolling pin4 or just your hands, or whether you should be wearing gloves, or whether it’s got enough flour, or whether maybe you should buy a special as-seen-on-TV kneading implement. Those are okay questions, but kneading is by its nature a slow process: there’s no such thing as flash-kneading. And the lump is huge, huge.

The best thing is to try one approach until it stops working, and then try another. One approach might work better than another, but nearly anything helps. And nearly everything teaches you something worth knowing.

That pretty much sums up how I feel about reparative therapy, and why I don’t put too much stock in it, at least no more stock than I put in any single solution to any complex problem. I’ll probably always be attracted to men, but — O listen well, 18-year-old self — I’m no longer frantic, no longer miserable, no longer desperate.

When people ask me how I got from there to here, I want to tell them: Everything. Family, friends, meds, therapy; praying to God, cursing Him, threatening Him and making up with Him and just sitting still; writing, reading, laughing, crying, living. It all helps. Life helps, reality helps.

The one sure way to stay miserable is to do nothing at all.

1 Won’t stop me from talking about it, though. Heck no! So please take all this with a grain of salt.
2 Gershoms are Jewish by descent, if not by creed. We say grace in Hebrew, celbrate Passover and Chanukah, and call my parents Ima and Abba. It’s always made certain Scripture passages particularly poignant for me. I sort of enjoy the band, too, but it’s not pronounced the same way.
3 Or, come to think of it, leavening.
4 Do people even use rolling pins for kneading or is that for something else? I don’t know anything about body psychotherapy OR baking.

Your friends make known, O Lord, the glorious splendor of your kingdom.1

One nice thing about going to daily(ish) Mass is hearing about the saints, who I usually can’t even be bothered to talk to, much less read about. We’re under no obligation to do any of the above, of course, which is like saying that the son of a rich man could chew on corn cobs and sleep on a bed of hay, if he preferred to do so. Which of course we frequently do.

When I participate in any kind of daily liturgy, whether it’s the Mass or the Office, I try to remember that the readings for the day might very well be custom tailored to me, might be just exactly what I need to hear, if I have ears to hear it. That’d sound egotistical if we didn’t know the kind of love God has for us, which is — I keep reminding myself — intensely personal.

Today is Saint Luke’s day. The name always makes me think of Brother Lucas, who belongs to the order I stayed with for three months in Peru, back in ’08. My first memory of him is, in a sense, the first time I understood what the order was all about. We were sitting down to dinner and he was talking in Spanish; another brother, Br. José María, translated for me.

From the tone of Br. Lucas’ voice, I would have assumed he was discussing the weather, or the dogs,2 or a trip he had made into town. But the words coming from Br. José María were intensely personal: “It took me a long time,” he was saying, “to be able to offer up to God the blessings he gave me and the good works I did. But then He told me He wanted something else. I couldn’t believe it: I said, No, no, no! Because” — Br. Lucas took a big breath here — “He said that He wanted my sins, too.”

Was this standard dinner conversation around here? Was this, maybe, just what most Peruvians were like? A qualified “yes” to the first and a definite “no” to the second: one of the marks of the order was the sharing of interior lives to a degree I hadn’t encountered before, and haven’t since. But apart from them, Peruvian men aren’t generally big on sharing their feelings.

Mostly it was just Brother Lucas being Brother Lucas.

Brother Lucas is a big man: before joining the order, he used to coach high school crew teams. His voice is deep and rich and he has round, muscular shoulders, but I was always surprised how easy it was to talk to him: surprised because you wouldn’t think somebody with such a face, The Face, would be easy to talk to.

About a month into my visit, I was frustrated: there were some English speakers around, but most of the conversation was in Spanish, and although I spoke some of it, I always felt left out no matter how much the others tried to include me; and then of course if I noticed they were trying to include me, I felt awkward about that. It was an emotional place in general, too: you try sitting for three hours a day in front of the Blessed Sacrament and tell me some crazy stuff doesn’t come bubbling up from your heart.

So I was wandering around the grounds after dinner, 4000 miles from home and feeling every inch of it, when Br. Lucas saw me and asked what was wrong. “I’m sad,” I said in Spanish, “because everybody’s always talking, talking, talking, and I don’t understand anything!” and then I burst into tears.

He sat there with me for a little bit, and then said slowly and clearly: “Steve. Tu hablas Castellano muy, muy bien.3 He said it in Spanish, of course: making a gift not only of the words, but of the way he said them.

Whenever I ask myself what Christianity is all about — what difference it all makes, how it is that Jesus came to save us and yet here we are, profoundly un-saved — I remind myself: the only reason people like Br. Lucas exist is because Jesus came. There’s no other explanation for him than that Jesus lives in and through him. I know it doesn’t come through from two little stories. You’d have to meet the man.

Which applies to Jesus, too: you have to meet the man. When it comes to answering our deepest questions, words won’t do. Only a Person will.

1 From the Responsorial Psalm for today — Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012.
2 They owned 6 German Shepherds, whom they trained assiduously. Naturally Br. Lucas with a German Shepherd always made me think of St. Francis.
3 “You speak Spanish very, very well.”

To my relief, I wake up too late for Mass this morning. More sleep means less surliness, and less effort spent ignoring my resentment at the priest who sings off-key and the parishioners who ad-lib the responses to make them just a little bit more feminist.

I’m trailing a cloud of melancholy from bad dreams: something to do with wounds, accusations, betrayal of trust. I know from long experience that the daily routine washes these things away. This was my salvation as a teacher: no matter how dark things were in the morning, five minutes into Algebra II and I’d forget whatever was gnawing at me, buoyed up by the energy flowing between me and my students, buoyed up also by the chapel that adjoined my morning classroom.

Some years ago, on New Year’s Day in Father T.’s private chapel, I asked the Lord how I could make things different this year, how I could keep from going round in endless circles, steer clear of the trap of quiet desperation that had always terrified me.

He told me to give him half an hour a day, which I have been doing — more or less — ever since.

At first that meant silent prayer, sitting in the dark in my bedroom at home, in an easy chair no less, trying to keep my mind clear and see where the Lord would take me: which resulted variously in tears, boredom, anger, joy, astonishment, emptiness, or just a solid half hour of trying not to think about sex too much.

Sometimes I’d spend the half hour before the Blessed Sacrament; one of my first tasks, whenever I’ve moved to a new town, has been to find an Adoration chapel.

I’ve made adjustments to our contract (covenant?) since then, but kept the basics. Silent prayer can be traded for daily Mass; and either, if I’m not feeling up to meeting the Lord’s gaze quite so directly, can be traded for spiritual reading, journaling — even sometimes blogging.

Missing Mass this morning meant making up for it this evening. I procrastinate a bit, pay some bills, and retire to my Writing Cave in the attic. I take out my Bible, my Josef Pieper, my journal.

My goodness, it’s the last page. I look at the first one: how old is this journal? How far have I come? The first entry is dated June 26, 2011. It’s too maudlin to reproduce here, but it’s full of a quiet complaint: I am lonely; I have been lonely so long; when will I stop being lonely? Are others so lonely? Is there something wrong with me, that I’m so lonely? Is there anything ahead but more loneliness?

I’m astonished to find that things are not like that now. I write in my journal a record of gratitude, looking around my mental landscape to see how many people I love, how many love me: Thank you, Lord, for J and B and A and B and M and J and C and N; Thank you for Father T; Thank you for my family.

Now my question is different. Do others have so many to love, so many who love them? Why have I been given so much? Why doesn’t everyone have a Father T, someone to call at any hour? Why doesn’t everyone have friends around them who surprise them with more welcome and understanding than they can believe?

I don’t understand my own heart. In the midst of gratitude I still feel the ache of the old grudge: if I’m done for the moment being angry at Him for seeming to abandon me, now I complain that He gives me too much, and not enough to the so-many others who need help so badly.

O Lord our God, says the antiphon from Monday’s Compline, Unwearied is your love for us.

It’s a good thing, too.

“I remember,” I told my little brother on my last visit home, “when I realized that dressing fashionably wasn’t a betrayal of Gershom principles.”

I don’t mean my mother dressed me in flour sacks, growing up, or that there was ever a firm, spoken injunction against trying to look like we fit in anywhere. But aren’t unspoken rules the strongest kind?

When I was about 13, I was driving somewhere with my dad and we passed a Public School Kid,1 shuffling along with a t-shirt too big for him but not big enough to cover the boxers that showed above his sagging pants. He had two or three piercings. To my eyes, this was a scary, badass dude.

My dad let out his standard grunt/sigh of weary disapproval — this kid was everything that was wrong with the world! — and said, “Steve. Thanks for not being like that.”

He had no idea that what I heard was: “Thanks for not fitting in anywhere.”

Not Being Like That was one of the unspoken-but-firmly-established principles of Gershomhood, which included a whole list of things — some (as I now consider them) good, some bad, mostly neutral, but all verboten, under pain of disenfranchisement or at least mockery:

  • Eating conspicuously healthy food
  • Buying brand-name clothing
  • Being too intellectual
  • Being too lowbrow (with exceptions for The Three Stooges and Leslie Nielsen)
  • Hugging
  • Holding hands during the Our Father

Etc., etc. I don’t know whether this list seems consistent to the untrained eye, but to me the indefinable quality of Gershomhood runs through all of it, as unmistakable as a pungent odor, immediately identifiable to anybody with the right habit of mind.

It all had a weird power over me, due to my intense desire to belong. My fear at being caught listening to Celine Dion2 probably approached, in intensity, my fear of being discovered to be gay.

I’m not trying to tell you that my parents ruined my life by not encouraging me to use hair gel.

Yeah, it took me a while to understand — for example — that owning new furniture wasn’t a sin, and that going to therapy wasn’t a sign of weakness. But there’s nothing unusual in a kid unreflectively absorbing his parents’ preferences and turning them into prejudices. Some of it I probably made up myself and later attributed it to them; I wonder what my siblings’ list would include? (Feel free to chime in here, guys.)

After I had been at college for a little bit and had begun seriously to experience Other People, I think I went through a period of being sort of self-righteously un-Gershomly in front of my parents — I bet it really showed ‘em when I pierced my eyebrow3 — but eventually I settled down and just tried to do my own thing, whatever it was; even if it sometimes happened to coincide with the sort of thing my father would approve of.

To this day, though, I get a kind of transgressive thrill when I eat at a vegan restaurant, shake hands during the sign of peace, put on cologne in the morning, or call somebody “dude”.

What about you? What were your family’s unspoken rules? Do you still follow them, or have you forsworn them completely, or have you just plain stopped thinking about them?

1 The Public School Kid was a firmly-established archetype in my childhood. They swore, listened to Metallica, and wore their caps backwards, even when the brim would’ve been useful for keeping the sun out of their eyes. STOOPID.
2 I don’t really listen to Celine Dion. Or maybe I do. Do I even like her? I’m not sure. I’m just worried I don’t hate her as much as I’m supposed to.
3 I bet most passive-aggressive people would be surprised and chagrined at how often their vengeful strategems go — not ignored, not resisted — but completely unnoticed.