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 Pulling Up Stakes: Stepping Into Freedom

 

A BACKGROUND CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:

PULLING UP STAKES  evolved from the journal I kept tracing my own journeys of discovery undertaken in preparation for and during my extended sabbatical from clinical practice as a psychoanalyst in Los Angeles, California, and my re-entry into a new life and practice in Santa Cruz.  My journeys have been to wild, beautiful and provocative places in the outside world, as well as the terrain of my own internal world and the landscape of my primary relationship with my husband and traveling companion, Jim Wheeler.

It was no small struggle relinquishing a carefully sculpted professional privacy to explore in this public format some of my own struggles, observations and personal breakthroughs.  As a psychoanalyst, I both value introspective reverie and meditative solitude, as well as the deeply powerful impact of relationships and micro moments within them, on self- discovery and self-awareness.  In my journeys, I have been guided by my desire to make both a priority in my personal quest.

Although publishing this stirred for a long my own considerable anxiety about relinquishing my privacy within the analytic ivory tower, revealing as well as my discoveries and inspirations,  my own vulnerabilities and struggles, I felt it timely to demystify the psychoanalyst’s  private world. Depth psychology has much to offer to the world in these troubled times and much of value for the general educated reader who will probably never personally encounter an analyst’s couch. While September 11th plunged us all into confrontation with terrorism and violence,  psychoanalysts have long been in dialogue about the nature of aggression and fear and their psychological origins and triggers.  We have much to offer, as well, about how to develop our own ability to self-reflect and take “ownership” of our own unconscious anxieties, conflicts and projections.  I decided to offer as faithful account as possible of my own process during my own personal and relational odyssey, exploring what I have learned working with couples and individuals, while resculpting my own life and relationships from this vantage point.

One thing I have surely learned is that when we engage with others and in different situations, various of our multiplicitous selves are summoned forth.  We have the “best” selves we strive to put forth to the world, the ones that some people, places and emotional moments seem to foster—you know, the calm, collected, generous, competent, smart, witty, desirable self we love—Under auspicious circumstances we are able to enjoy experiencing our truly good selves by candlelight, as it were. Our public appearance—our “good” self-images are also bastioned and buttressed as we navigate the world aided by innumerable props—for example our personas can be fortified and shaped by lists of accomplishments, wardrobe, makeup, car, pets, home, job, community position, Curriculum Vitae, reputation, press releases, airbrushing and photo enhancement.

But we also have some, god forbid, icky shameful selves that particular people (often our most dearly beloveds), places and emotional experiences also summon forth—you know, our anxious, edgy, withholding, stupid, greedy, blind, and even hateful selves that we detest acknowledging.  But life is not all by candlelight, and face them I also knew I must.  Certainly facing the truth about these selves took up much of the analysis I, like all of my colleagues underwent as part of our training. Good therapy allows us to work though so much, but years after my analysis, I still dreamed as well of seeking new and different situations where more ways of being in the world, without all the familiar props could be discovered, perhaps gracious selves suitable for aging gracefully during the last third of my time on the planet, could be encountered, birthed and fostered.

It occurred to me that in journaling my own personal uprooting and explorations I would be writing a documentary Bildungsroman in the tradition of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, or Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, but unlike the typical “coming of age” opus, dealing with emergence from the chrysalis of childhood and adolesence into adulthood, my saga would be a more atypical “Coming of a Certain Age,” befitting my moving vantage point gleaned at three score years.

Some years back, as I was dreaming of taking this sabbatical, I wondered who the me or “me-s” would turn out to be if I upended everything in my life that was familiar and essentially identity defining, if I leased my comfortable and beautiful home of twenty-seven years on Santa Monica Bay, left the reassuring and usually settling company of my adult children, best friends, confidants, colleagues and family, and shed for awhile, my professional identity and well-established role as a clinical psychologist.  The latter is a role which, like parenthood, accords more than a fair share of both esteem and humility, moderate security and considerable stimulation, and which also accords the assuring myth that I am the doctor or parent and you are the patient of child, so shedding it along with all the other identity-defining buttresses, would be major, that I knew for sure.

As it turns out, I have done just that and am now feeling like a snake looking back down the road at the skins it has slipped out of, needing more room to grow, having witnessed myself facing some extreme physical and psychological challenges, in many different deeply moving and illuminating situations, without the insulations of the many roles and props I have left behind.  While for the majority of the travels, I have been in the company of my husband, Jim, navigating the free fall from our having led full, but separate professional lives, into suddenly being thrust into being each others all and everything breakfast, lunch, and dinner, days, weeks, and months at a time.  The last major leg of our journeys, however, we each chose to pursue passions that we did not share—Jim bicycling 4,317 miles (EFI or “every f–ing inch”) across the continental United States, while I pursued a contemplative Buddhist retreat in the south of France.  Negotiating our two year “Wild Wryed on Wheels” of round the clock intimacy followed by our three month separation and then reunion and re-entry and new challenges brought to the fore the complex landscape of marital relations with all of its attendant joy, humor, snits and rages, conflicts, mediations and resolutions.

I have celebrated testing my mettle, appreciated deeply my own abiding goodness, and aspects of competency I didn’t know I had, as well as been daunted by my limits and humiliated by confrontations with my own personal ickyness, and shaken to the core by the universal vulnerability we all must accept.  I have encountered my own calm and centered Buddha self that I sincerely hope will see me through old age, having embraced it during the retreat with Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.  It was tested by the terrorist attacks, a permanently crashed computer hard drive carrying a good chunk of my photography and data with it, a tense and confrontationally not very merry re-entry blacker-than-white Christmas with some of our kids, the blissfully reparative anticipation of the birth of “Running Bear”, a new foal on our ranch followed by his sudden very sad and unexpected death, cancer and treatment for both Jim and me, a shattered hip and another big health challenge.   All in all, I can identify with Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, returning from his sometimes harrowing voyages, enriched, expanded, sobered and fulfilled—a “sadder but a wiser man.” Would I do it again if I had the decision to make all over again?  In a New York Minute.

But many of the external destinations we traveled in, such as Irian Jaya, New Guinea, Borneo, Palestine, the west bank of Israel, parts of Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina would be difficult or at least unwise to visit at this time, as the world has at least for now, changed so radically and many of the countries we visited are now in political or economic chaos while some of the amazing people there who evoked such profound feelings and invited selves I didn’t know I had, are no longer reachable. Through these journals, I enjoy reliving these many transformational experiences and have invited you in the book to accompany me through all these varied terrains, and through some of these questions, to reflect on your own life, choices, relationships, goals and passions .

QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION:

Part I: Kilimanjaro

1. How would you describe the author as you meet her about to climb Africa’s highest peak?  What is she like?  Why is she doing this?  What dream does she hatch along the way?

2. How does her “psychoanalytic lens” reveal itself in the story of Zoe and Bart?  How does this story set the tone for the potential gravity of the journey she and her husband are undertaking?

3. What challenges have you set for yourself (past and future) to test your own mettle?  What have you learned about yourself?

Part II and III:  Bench Valley and The Launch

1. Why does the author decide to write about her sabbatical?  What do you learn about Harriet and Jim’s relationship?  How would it be to spend 24/7 with your significant other for a year or more?  How do you feel about the “opposites attract” idea of relationship?  What are its costs?  Its benefits?

2. In the fall over the edge with the llama, she talks about how llamas fight, faint or take flight when stressed.  What do Harriet and Jim do?  How do you understand “regression in the service of the ego”?  How do you handle panic?  How do you want to be able to navigate panic and stress?  Discuss how she and Jim learned better ways to handle challenges over the course of their journey.

3. What have you learned or do you think we can learn from our pets?

Part IV: Oh, Jerusalem!

7.  How does “into the eeancient deep” reveal the kind of danger encountered on Kilimanjaro?   What are the similarities and differences between Jim and Harriet and Zoe and Bart? Why did scuba diving bring up her birth for Harriet?  What new light is shed on their relationship?

8. At the Freud conference how does travel already color Wrye’s experience of her own “tribe”? What kinds of “traveller’s anxiety” show up in the pre-9/11 world and how do you experience it now?

9. What kinds of “letting go” are demanded in the “Flight into Egypt” and “Borders, Boundaries, and Thresholds”?  What is the difference between a border, a boundary and a threshold?  How is the journey already transformational?  How would you handle a “Turkish Bath” experience in a foreign country, or even at home?

10. How does the author use humor throughout the book—from the “yard sale” unloading the llama trailer, to “Love in the Afternoon” with the llamas, or “Chicken Jim,” or the camel ride up Mt. Sinai.   What are some of your favorite humorous scenes?  How about the use of irony in King Tut’s “uncommonly Common Little Treasure”?

PART V: Indonesia Log

11.  Although Wrye gives up her psychoanalytic practice during this extended sabbatical, how does it keep manifesting “on the road”?

12. What was Wrye’s 40 year deferred dream and why was it deferred?   How does gender figure throughout this section?  How do the roles of social activist/feminist conflict with the role of anthropologist/observer?  What did the stories of the penis gourds and “digital sacrifice’ stir in you?  While we can attribute this to “primitive people” how does sexism and chauvinism permeate our culture and politics today in our “civilized” world?

13.  In what ways is the Baliem Valley journey so deeply moving and meaningful to Wrye?  (For up to date information about what has happened to these stone age people at the hands of the Indonesian government, google West Papua. )

14. How does the theme “Letting Go” take on new meaning with leasing a house?  What attachments do you cherish that would be hard to let go of?  What are the benefits of examining our attachments?  In “Recrudescence” how does Wrye again use humor to soften a painful situation?

PART VI: Partings and Impartings

15.  The theme of “Letting Go” gains depth and meaning in “Fear of Wheels”—How is Jim’s bicycling in some ways Harriet’s greatest challenge?   How does she deal with it?  What are your greatest personal challenges?  The deepest trigger points in your closest relationships?  How have you dealt with them?  How do you want to deal with them?

16.  Describe the “good medicine” Wrye and Wheeler came up with to bridge the communication gap between them.  The ducks on the pond, like the fainting llama, introduce us to the theme of animal teachers.  How do animal teachers figure throughout the book?

PART VII: I Have Arrived

17.  Have you had any familiarity with Buddhist philosophy before reading this book?   What drew Wrye to Plum Village and the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh?  How does it relate to her own religious history? What powerful teachings impressed you most?

18 .  Mother/Son themes come to the fore in this chapter.  Describe them and discuss what you learned about Wrye’s own pain as a mother of a son?   What does she learn at Plum Village that helps her?  What close relationships have brought you the most challenge and how?

19. What is the meaning of “I Have Arrived.  I Am Home” ?   and “Peace is Every Step”?  How do they relate as themes for the whole book?

PART VIII & IX:  Loss, Luminosity and Challenges to Faith

20.  Wrye as the psychologist who had done her doctoral dissertation on the mind body connection was stunned to discover what traumas buried in her own body?  How did she gain access to them?  How did access to her own buried trauma affect her recovery and health?

21. After deepening her commitment to the Buddhist practice and returning home, what “opportunities to practice” did she face?  How does mindfulness practice teach us how to understand and face loss?

22. How did an eerie encounter with an owl, another “animal teacher weave its way into her experience with breast cancer? Elsewhere, Wrye has written about “Formative and Deformative Narratives”.   How do narratives or the stories we tell ourselves shape our experience?  How can examining and changing some of the narratives we hold dear help us “Step Into Freedom”?

23. How did Wrye’s Buddhist practice sustain her through cancer treatment?  What supports and practices do you find most powerful in facing your own challenges?  How does Wrye speculate that her immune system was compromised in the year before the discovery of her cancer?  What do you think of that line of thinking?

24.  What is an “AFGO”?  How does humor help diffuse pain.  Describe Wrye’s encounter with the hospital “chaplain”.  How did his beliefs and behavior reveal a decidedy unspiritual attitude?

PART  X: Reflections

25.  The final section of Pulling Up Stakes serves as a kind of coda, or theme of the journey Wrye set out to undertake.  What is the metaphorical meaning of the homeless man and the flightless duck?  How does another “animal teacher,” the scorpion, teach Wrye yet another lesson about facing death, fear, humility and her interconnection with all living beings?

26.  How do the mother-son and mother-daughter relationships weave into themes of attachment and letting go in these chapters? How has Wrye’s journey and letting go of assumptions, attachments and habits shaped this?

27.  How in your own life does or would “Stepping Into Freedom” look like?  What would you do if you could take a “sabbatical” from your regular life?  How might it change you?  Is there a life lesson you would like to learn?

 

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