Monday, September 03, 2007

Stop All the Clocks

[Be forewarned: the following is meant to be an homage and a confession, but in the truest spirit of Murat11’s blogs, it will be, first and foremost, as we all know, a ramble.]

This past week, in the wake of the Larry Craig buzzing, I was driving in early morning traffic, listening to an addle-brained local broadcaster engaging in faux journalism with his incessant “I’m just askings.” I suspect that his apparent attempts to be “objective” had more to do with Mr. Craig’s Republican affiliations than with any issues of sexual orientation; I seriously doubt that the likes of, say, Melissa Etheridge would have been accorded the same deference.

At one point in this faux-caster’s radio twaddle, he invoked the phrase “homosexual lifestyle.” So much for journalism. Just what is, I ask you, a homosexual lifestyle? What, for that matter, is a heterosexual lifestyle? It’s clear, from subsequent comments that Mr. Faux made, that you could substitute “cruising and promiscuous” for the words homosexual lifestyle. If cruising and promiscuous = homosexual lifestyle, then there are quite a few of us out here in hetero-land that qualify for new sexual designations.

Howzabout we retire “homosexual lifestyle” to the graveyard, right beside “I’m just asking.”

So saith the hummingbird darting outside my window.

It is very clear to my visitors that, when not going all goo goo and nostalgic, I have lately been deeply involved in The Episcopal Church’s and Anglican Communion’s quagmire regarding issues of “full” or “non” inclusion, as it relates to the blessed place of all people, regardless of sexuality, to be accorded equal standing (seating, and kneeling) within both TEC and the AC: equal standing here = LGBT rights to marry within the church, rights to have marriages and unions blessed within the church, rights to serve in capacities from diaconate right on through to Archbishop of the See of Canterbury. The word “rights” seems a terribly legalistic and inappropriate word for something which, to my mind, should be a given. I don’t think the Son of Man was into parsing the “rights” of women, children, and men: he kept it simple—a two-pronged mantra. If we can’t think with the clarity and hearts of children, we end up with the primatial mess in which we’re currently embroiled.

Over the past few weeks, all of this has had me thinking again of Bill.

In September 1978, I moved to Austin, to attend the University of Texas Graduate School of Social Work. I was, as it happened, also newly married, and newly cast in the role of stepfather to a beautiful 4 year old stepdaughter. Most of the “enlightened” folks around me thought “one” of those new developments would have been challenge enough, without going for all three. I chalked that kind of talk up to just the kind of thing I would expect from social workers with agendas to grind; they may have had a point, but who lives a life as “rationally” as all that?

One of the earliest items of business our first day of school was getting our assignments for field placements and field supervisors. I was assigned to Bill; I would be working with him at the Travis County Child Welfare unit. The prospect scared me to death.

In a meeting full of intensely dour world-savers, Bill stood out with his infectious (well, not infectious to his dour brothers and sisters) mirth, his bright smile, and his raucous, cackling, grackle-like laughter. As I sat in terror of knocking on the doors of child abusers, I wondered, what in the hell does this man have to be so happy about?

Here’s where the details get a little fuzzy, so the actual chronology may be just a bit off.

I found that, in addition to my terror with regard to knocking on doors, I was also terrified about the prospect of meeting with Bill for our weekly supervisory meetings. Intimacy with older men was not something I had ever been comfortable with. I had, for all practical purposes, been a fatherless child, and while my relationships with two stepfathers had not been in any real way hostile, they had been marked by a great deal of anxiety: silence always weighed heavily in the air of any car rides that may have featured just the two of us. And Bill expected me to show up weekly for a meeting with him to bare my soul and work ethic?

Here’s where we get to the cutting edge:

Somewhere in these early weeks, a new friend of mine mentioned that she had been a therapy client of Bill’s; to this item, she also posed a question: “Do you think he’s gay?” I didn’t know if he was gay, but after the question, I did know one thing: I was terrified by the possibility. And I can’t even say exactly what that new terror was even about, which is my point here: I think homophobia is much more than fear of being the same, or of being seduced, or any of the other absurd and ridiculous notions that attend it. Because what I felt was pre-verbal: it went to the very core of me: there were no thoughts, images, or specific worries: there was just terror.

[If this terror is what the global Anglican Communion has institutionalized, as my friend Kenny Strickland suggests, then we have our work cut out for us.]

So, added to my pedestrian terrors, I could add the angst of a deeply existential one. I was absolutely horrified by the prospect of my next meeting with Bill. But, I couldn’t duck it.

There are things you do in life about which you cringe upon recalling them later. I do not cringe about that next meeting with Bill, but the me that grew through my relationship with him is astonished that I was once so very confused and lost.

We went through our meeting pretty much as before, looking at my cases, my documentation, looking at my – old social work catch-phrase – “use of self.” Social work has gotten no better, perhaps even worse, at its penchant for ridiculous neologisms.

Near the end of our session, Bill asked me if there were anything else I needed to talk about. I should have just asked him if I could throw myself out his two-story window, but instead, I blurted out: “Are you gay?”

As if that were any of my fucking business; as if it made one bit of difference.

The room was very quiet. Bill smiled a very warm smile and his face turned beet red. He leaned towards me, clasped his hands, and said gently, “In all my years of supervising students, you are the first person to ever ask me that. I’ve been expecting the question for years.”

“Yes,” he said, “I am gay. And I am perfectly fine with telling you this. But: I expect you to respect this information, and not ever hurt me with it.”

I was astonished by his honesty, and by the courage of his vulnerability. I was simply blown away—and so was the terror.

Bill was the one true mentor in my entire 20 years as a therapist. He was by far the greatest of my human fathers. He passed away several years ago, but I love him to this day. His genius as a clinician was to keep things elegantly simple, and not get caught up in a wash of psychobabble. He taught me the deep healing of laughter in my work with my clients. Once, when I called him to refer a good friend of mine for counseling, he listened to a laundry list of what my friend was struggling with, laughed, and said, in summary, “Oh, so he’s just a big ole mess. We’ll have a lot of fun.” My friend came to love Bill just as I did.

(Bill loved messes and challenges. Later in our year of working together, he told me that when the supervisors were divvying up the new students, no one would touch me. “They thought you’d be too much of a challenge. I told them to give you to me, that we’d have a lot of fun.”

Two students in that incoming class were Harvard graduates. Both of us were shunned for the same reasons: Bill grabbed us both.)

The truly great therapists are so much more than clinicians: they are shamans. Bill was one of the greats.

He may have blown away my existential terror at our meeting at the Rubicon, but it took a bit longer to take care of my more pedestrian fears. A few weeks later, we met after I had managed to run off all the clients he had assigned me. These were all individuals who had been reported for ALLEGED child abuse or neglect, claims that were in need of investigation: I was responsible for substantiating the claims, not swallowing them whole hog.

Bill said: “You know, if you sum up your approach to these folks, you’re just another cop. These people have plenty of cops in their lives, plenty of bossy parents. They don’t need another one. You need to figure out how to be something different.”

The key was simply getting to know them, talking to them, hanging out with them. I never lost another referral that year. And I took that simplicity into my 20 years of practice. My goal at all times, even in the most heinous or difficult of situations, was to be able to speak of things as if we were simply breathing.

Bill was born in Gonzales, Texas. He’s buried down in Lockhart. He lives in my heart.

I’ve been reading a lot of Louie Crew’s Anglican Pages over the past few months. There’s a Bill, if I’ve ever seen one.

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Blogger Lee said...

I really like this Murat! As a person who often blurts out things and reacts instead of stepping back and analyzing, it resonated with me. Your openness and sensitivity to how your experiences have formed you and can help you form others is awesome. I'm stumblingly trying to do the same in my life with my students. You are a good example of a reflective teacher and counselor. Thank you for sharing that.

And to your earlier post of the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice. Awesome! It didn't surprise me that you are a romantic at heart. I just didn't know how much. (g) Too cool!

6:11 AM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Lee: Thanks for your kind words. It still amazes me that nine months of a working relationship with Bill managed to be steering enough for me to set sail for 20 years as a therapist. It was a grounding and an alignment, a complete navigational system. I may have refined things, gotten a bit more elegant, but Bill's guidance was at the core of everything I did (and didn't do).

Sense and Sensibility is Tina's favorite movie of all time. I'm very fond of it as well, but I may actually like Keira's P&P just a bit more. It's a little rougher around the edges, and further enhanced by the fact that I had an enormous "prejudice" towards Ms. Knightley, when I heard she was to be Elizabeth. As it was, I thought her performance was sublime.

6:05 PM  
Blogger San said...


A thoughtful post, and one from which I've learned a bit more about the history of Murat.

The homophobia thing: I believe it's a puzzler to women. For some reason, we straight chicks don't seem to be as "threatened"--if that's the right word--by lesbians. I'm sure there are exceptions, but it must have something to do about the cultural assumptions that get drummed into our heads, whether or not we want to receive them. Gay men are more stereotyped as having the "gay lifestyle" than are women. It took some courage to relate your honest fears and to ask your mentor that question. Love the story about how his wisdom unfolded to such an extent that he fathered you. That is tremendous and rich.

A therapist for 20 years? Of course I wonder why the career change, the reinvention of you, vocationally at least. Two therapists in the house too many? Just kidding. I'm sure it's more interesting than that.

Funny. My bachelor's was in psych and I'd intended to get a PhD in clinical and pursue the therapist's path. Long story as to how I got diverted. I won't go there now. But for many years, in the back of my mind was this intent to go back to school and get at least a Master's in psych. Actually, it was more of a millstone around my neck.

Funny too that you say the best therapists are shamans. The closest I ever came to being in therapy myself was being on the receiving end of a shamanic healing ceremony. That experience, along with several other discoveries, have enlivened my enthusiasm for my life as-is.

There's a book I've studied with a women's circle. It's by Jamie Sams and is called The Thirteen Original Clan Mothers. Her prose is a bit leaden. It's not a lively read, but her "ideas" are good. Each clan mother symbolises one aspect of women's wisdom. And each has a way of getting at truth. The one I most identify with is "Weaves the Web." She's the one who creates. She "works with the truth." That resonates with me. I've given up trying to figure out the truth, and God forbid, I wouldn't want to figure out another's truth. (Thank goodness, there are others who are courageous enough to do this, or more accurately, to take others by the hand and lead them to the place where they might find their own truth.)

What I do is "work" with the truth through painting and words. And I'm at peace with this. Finally.

12:15 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...


I don't know about that word "courage": my question to Bill felt like nothing more than a wayward blurt. How he handled my confused mush was where I felt the courage grew. He stood me up, dusted me off, and sent me into the world as, I think, one fine therapist. There is no question about his fathering me. I walked out of that year's relationship with a sense of identity that had been sorely lacking.

There is considerable attendant drama to my moving on from being a therapist (though, in truth, as a teacher, I am still a "group" social worker/therapist, just for less pay). Some of the back story to that drama is best shared in person, if at all. That being said, though, my getting together with Tina (with Walden jumping right in, not long after) was a time that heralded enormous "great expectations" on our parts. We essentially went on our grand walkabout/vision quests to make our lives as artists, she as a painter and poet, and I as a writer. There was just a little too much Julia Cameron pumping in my veins at the time. I tend to characterize that grand "experiment" as jumping into the Void (the universe will provide, blah blah blah) and landing in a swimming pool without water. Way too much artistic naivete on my part, which put me on a post-therapist journey of "reinvention" (you got that right) that was a harrowing search for meaningful work. Along the way, I was blessed, the Universe did provide, though not in any way that I had initially hoped or expected. There was poverty (our own) I never expected to experience and much struggle, all in the midst of the amazing gifts of Tina and Walden in my life. It all broke me open and brought the kind of compassion that comes with "being with," not the compassion that comes while sitting in a therapist's chair. I have certainly found the kind of peace you speak of, too. "Finally," as well. I'm very happy that Tina has her therapy practice, but I'm at peace with having moved on.

A friend recently offered me a very lucrative offer to return to the therapy fold. It was a blessing in itself, in that I quickly saw that my place was in the classroom, building relationships and communities with the students at our school.

I think I'm familiar with Jamie Sams work. I believe we have a set of animal cards that she developed several years ago. I used them to find my totems.

Part of that grand Wiley Coyote splat into the waterless swimming pool was an extraordinarily naive attempt at living in Taos, quickly aborted, but terribly sobering.

I always felt that my work as a therapist was much more enhanced by my readings in Zen and shamanism and fiction. I used to say (and still believe) that I was better prepared as therapist by my undergraduate degree in English, than I was by the clinical lit I was fed (save for the work of Milton Erickson and his "disciples": no question ME was a shaman).

Thanks again for your reading of the Bill journey. And peace to you, Bennie, and your marvelous babies.

8:25 AM  
Blogger San said...

Thanks for sharing more of what's brought you to this time in your life. Interesting that you say your undergraduate English degree prepared you more than anything else (almost) for your work as a therapist. In August we hosted a reception for Lewis Mehl-Madrona's latest book Narrative Medicine. He stayed with our family for a few days and as a gesture of appreciation, invited Flan and me to be guests at a workshop hosted by a counseling college a couple of weeks later.

Lewis is out there on the edge in his attitudes about healing. He is also an extremely entertaining speaker. VERY funny. He emphasizes that you have to have fun with clients, and as a card-carrying psychiatrist, he deals with the ax-wielding variety of mental illness as well as garden variety depression, also people who have serious "physical" illness, such as cancer. If you can imagine an audience of quite earnest counselors, some of whom had just graduated, some of whom were still studying, some seasoned practitioners there to snag some CEUs, all ready to hear "answers," and then no answers are delivered. Just a dizzying sequence of anecdotes.

L. kept asking the audience: "Who's read Flannery O'Connor? What about Faulkner? Pynchon? Ever hear of Pynchon?" Hardly ANY of the counselors knew about these people. Finally, one assertive woman raised her hand and asked, "If you were drawing up a course of study for counselors, what would you have them study?"

The answer, in so many words: Read lots of short stories, watch lots of movies, go to clown school, write some poetry.

I told a friend of mine, a counselor who wasn't there: I loved the presentation, but if I were an actual counselor who had to go back and work with people, I don't know if I'd find the ideas workable, though as an artist/writer, I loved them! I guess you would too, P.M.

3:19 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

San, the title Narrative Medicine resonates, because at its most basic, I saw the practice of therapy as the telling of stories, collaborative stories, but stories primarily, obviously, told by my clients. I saw my role as an editor with a soft touch, not a red pen-wielding grammarian, but one who listens to the stories told, nudges for elaboration, asks into what is not being told. At the point at which I was "nudged" into life after therapy, I felt it was time to step out of my editor's chair and begin to tell the stories my own body needed to tell. And even before that, I had to "live" the stories. I had the notion, but I had no clue what that ultimately meant.

My problem with so much clinical literature is that it is cookie cuttered and/or drowning in stultifying prose: it dissects and kills people. Listening is seen as a passive intervention, when it is in fact dynamically and radically active. I had but two requirements of all my clients: show up and do not be boring. If they were boring, it was because I was not nudging the narrative in the right direction.

It's great to revisit BOTH our past (and continuing) lives as healers.

7:08 PM  

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