Gestalt trainer, wise woman, practitioner of the art of ordinary
One rainy day when going to the playground was a no go, I read The Velveteen Rabbit to our five-year-old granddaughter. It had been a long time since I’d read it to my children and I liked it a lot better than she did–so much so that I’ve searched for ordinary words to say why getting to an ordinary kind of real is so important.
Do you remember the story? A velveteen rabbit was given to a Boy on Christmas. “He was fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be; his coat was spotted brown and white; he had real thread whiskers and his ears were lined with pink sateen.” The Boy quickly forgot about him, so he lived in the toy cupboard where, because he was “only made of velveteen, some of the more expensive toys quite snubbed him.”
The cheaply made and nameless rabbit wondered what Real was. A wise old Skin Horse whose coat had worn off explained that “Real isn’t how you are made, it’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” The lonely rabbit longed to belong to a child, to be loved, and to become Real.
“Does it hurt?” asked the rabbit. Like most of us, he longed to become Real without too much difficulty. The Skin Horse explained: “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt…It doesn’t happen all at once…You become. It takes a long time.” The plus is that “once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts forever.”
One night the rabbit was chosen to sleep with the Boy. The Boy rolled over on him, which was decidedly unpleasant, but then played with him daily. As time passed, the happy rabbit failed to notice that his velveteen fur was getting shabby and his tail was coming loose. The unique marks of love wore away manufactured perfection, and one day the Boy pronounced the rabbit Real.
It is plainly so: getting to ordinary starts with an initial awakening into a self that feels Real. Only another’s devoted attention enlarges being and brings meaning: we matter to someone. It takes two to create one who feels Real. Although I would wish everyone this magical awakening, which is supposed to get a running start in childhood, we also know that Real that depends on another cannot last–either for Rabbit or ourselves. We must achieve a separate sense of self.
In stories, this hard and necessary separation is often imaged as a farewell to the other. In this story the Boy gets sick and Rabbit, along with infected bedding, must be burned. Forlorn, mourning the never-again days with the Boy, and accepting his fate with simple sadness, Rabbit feels a real tear trickle down his dingy little face.
Tears are part of the inevitable sorrows of life. We will lose our innocence, some of our beliefs, our faith in forever, and beloved others. Tears are how we let our hearts break. When Rabbit feels utterly bereft…
…the nursery fairy appears. She transforms Rabbit from Real to real. The fairy—symbol of the discovery of an indwelling self—doesn’t create a unicorn or even an eagle, but an ordinary rabbit. He can twitch his ears, nibble good things, and find real rabbit friends. It turns out that real life is gloriously ordinary, and I hope all of us get there.
So I have to get hopping now. We’re almost out of milk, I need to pick up the mild green olives our granddaughter likes, and get winter sweaters to the dry cleaner. Biscotti at the Italian bakery, maybe a gelato (as long as I’m there), and a birthday card. It’s an ordinary day.
Deborah Stewart is a Jungian Analyst on Cape Cod. She trained with the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts and the Westchester Institute for Training in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. She is a faculty member of the Philadelphia Jung Institute and sits on the board and faculty of the Gestalt International Study Center on Cape Cod. Previously, she trained as a Gestalt therapist at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. She can be reached at http://www.DeborahCStewart.com
Crows with iridescent rich feathers swoop in layers in front of my windshield. Their chatter hales down like hard pellets fallen from an August rain cloud in this October month. I drive into furious black wings, expecting they can be swept aside, made invisible, that they have not chosen me, but only like me, are weary after night flight across a sleeping continent. Their black pea eyes refuse to blink. They push roughly against air forcing me to breathe deeper like the first time, out of the birth waters, trying to catch that first breath of air. On this umbilical highway each exhalation releases: wings rise and fall to earth, these messengers of Eshu, bring divination, falling like rain, blur my vision in embryonic thin air. Finished, they fly east to the ocean. Sunrise reflects like water and oil on wings of charcoal. The space behind my heart darkens, while nigredo feathers fallen to earth, predict my mother’s death.
The summer is only beginning, though these hot, humid days suggest August, rather than the light touch of warmth that June most often brings. For the last several months I have been thinking, actually more ruminating about mortality, and to say it in what seems a more blunt manner, dying. This is the close personal death—not the distant one of a collective ritual such as Catholic extreme unction or the death of an actor playing someone dying in a movie. It is not the hearing of the death of an actor who has been immortalized on the screen. I question. How could he die? How old was he anyway—surely not that old? Then I remember the years since I first saw him on screen. I realize that the difference of our age is not that great. I might be closer to death then I think. Of course I am because I cannot know the minute nor the hour. This thought makes dying seem so very close to me. As if I will die. Can die—soon. For these few seconds I know this and think I can actually feel my body dying.
I have begun with my own mortality but I also want to talk about mothers and our holding and lose of them. In a soft way, like a small pocket of lightly swirling cove water, under the ocean, I have been thinking only about my own personal mother’s death, and so a patient came not too many days ago, because she is in mourning about her own mother’s recent death. Of course, every one who walks through the analytical door is carrying a gift, a contributing reason for my existence as I am for theirs. They are each bringing something I must hold with love and bear with courage. This is because I have forgotten and need reminding of my necessary life work.
I wonder if it isn’t too mournful and dreadful in some way to be thinking about death in the summer. Doesn’t it belong in a dark month, a rainy, cloud-driven late January day? As a depth psychologist I can safely say not—it’s all right to bring the darkness anytime as it never really leaves us. Yes, there is safety here but there is also safety in wanting the light—the beautiful light of a blue-sky June day.
I struggle with wanting both—because I actually need both. It does remind me of what appears as a paradox to me of having someone bring you into the world, be your first place of heart connection, all the while having them die, and yet still be with them in memory. This is for all the years the rest of my life. This might seem so simplistic in thought but it holds a great importance in how I feel my life and feel into my life.
This apparent eternal connection to life and mother, even through her death, sometimes even more so because of her death, interweaves through my life and that of my patients.
As I read through pages of author discussions in service of writing a book on what I have called Archetypal Grief—African American mothers losing their children for generations due to slavery, and the emotional pain of such losses, I feel myself to now be living within the phenomenological field of mothers and death. But like many things, I feel myself to have been chosen in this moment because I have chosen a topic—a theme, that wants to be expanded upon and yet carries the weight of intergenerational trauma that remains today.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a pioneer in the field of writing about death and dying, begins to inform my writing work—allowing me to develop an idea for a new model of consideration. This idea is that something changes the model of grief with intergenerational dying and mourning caused by an archetypal event such as slavery. It is almost as if a mother, and all the enslaved future daughters she births and their daughter’s daughters, moving down the maternal line, will have no place for denial or bargaining as regards death. Emotionally, there can only be room for anger, depression and acceptance. This is what can frame the lived experiences of mothering slaves bound to death through birthing and intergenerational child loss. I’m speaking of this because it has threaded through my consciousness for the past year as I write about enslaved mothers. I also know that it lives in me as a member of this cultural collective.
Working Hands Sunset red next to azure blue next to spring green, the colors of the quilt stream, an unchecked flow of colored river gradually meeting shore, the working brown of my grandmother’s hands.
This past Mother’s Day was a May Sunday in the middle of the month. I performed a short ritual in remembrance of my mother and all of the women of my matriarch lineage. I also remembered the women on my father’s side of family. This day designated for mothers is not the only one in which we think about the women who have given us life. In speaking of the mother archetype Jung says:
Like any other archetype, the mother archetype appears under an almost infinite variety of aspects….First in importance are the personal mother and grandmother, stepmother and mother-in-law….or a remote ancestress….The qualities associated with it are maternal solicitude and sympathy; the magic authority of the female; the wisdom and the spiritual exaltation that transcend reason; any helpful instinct or impulse; all that is benign, all that cherishes and sustains, that fosters growth and fertility. The place of magic transformation and rebirth, together with the underworld and its inhabitants, are presided over by the mother.
C.G. Jung, CW, vol9i, para. 156, 158
As I consider the passage of my own mother into death, I think more of my own to-come experience of dying. I think about how we can be afraid of dying. As I age, I realize I am in the category of one more likely to die. This is sobering. It doesn’t seem to matter how much presence death has when one is younger—in the twenties, thirties, the later years adds a different quality dimension. How I can be afraid of it, and how each patient who discusses dying of a parent, friend or stranger is actually referencing their own death. I believe this is why we must consider wisdom as we age. It seems an important exchange—a trade-off, a softening offered against the hard edge of ego consciousness leaving the body.
As I write now, I wonder about my own purpose on choosing this meditation on mothers, death and dying. It feels not like swimming in a spiral of self-aggrandizement but more like a spider traversing her web. Seeking a place to belong while knowing that all is at once home.
Blue Pearl Stepping outside of the hospital where she had just died, my arms have become wings. Blue pearl surrounds my heart and moves in the birthing motion of a star, unencumbered by fear of loss, now desiring only a child’s life. I am warm with sunrays. All false joys are tossed away like disappointing fruit, fallen next to discarded sorrow. All of it waiting to be washed away by the next rainfall. Ocean stone shines cerulean glory, pierces doubt, recovers with winds of truth any falsehood about love, and it’s power to heal all that hurts. Caresses heartbreak. Breathes tender. Like the velvet softness of aged skin. Sapphire reflects upon itself, star to star, captures my breath, recreates it pearl by pearl. And by this I know you have arrived safely.
Fanny Brewster Ph.D. M.F.A., is a Jungian analyst and author of African Americans and Jungian Psychology: Leaving the Shadows. (Routledge, 2017). She is a faculty member of the Philadelphia Jung Institute and can be reached through www.fannybrewster.com