Finding Our Way in the Dark

Every December, winter’s darkness curls up inside me.  It incarnates as a palpable energy. Even as I relish the beauty and mystery of Christmas, I notice the familiar melancholy, left over from too many losses at this time of year, pulling me inward.

This year, though, the darkness I experience doesn’t even  belong to me.  Its center of gravity is neither in the solstice nor inside my psyche, but instead in the world around me.  So many of us are in mourning.  A terrible specter has come crashing through the pale winter skies ahead of Santa’s sleigh, announcing itself with a broad flourish of trumpets.

Some shrug off the sense of cataclysm. They point out we need these dark times to confront our illusions. They remind us that our country has always been controlled by power-hungry narcissists. You just couldn’t see them behind the curtain. Even the progressive departing President we so love has had to make a few offerings at the altar of the Powers-that-Be, the oil barons, the One Percent.

But somehow so many of us had come to believe we were finally on the right track these last eight years, ushering in a better world.  Were we completely deluded?

I feel the despair of these times lapping at my very sense of self. Am I then no longer a child of the Sixties, my heart beating with ideals of social transformation?  The ever-hopeful lens through which I have viewed the world for these many decades has seen me through three or four pointless, horrific wars, the propping up of numerous corrupt regimes in Latin America, the enduring devastation of Reaganomics, the terrors of nuclear “mutually assured destruction,” the ever tightening noose of mass incarceration, and the careless, clueless disregard for the fate of the planet. I always chose to hope through it all.

But now, with each day’s news of one nightmare appointment after another, I am beset by visions of a behemoth who “slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.” (W.B.Yeats). What do I do with my hope?

I am perpetually restless. I can barely concentrate on projects that used to impassion me. They seem so trivial.  I constantly peruse stories on social media with the same grim focus I remember my parents displaying as they watched the funerals of JFK and Martin Luther King. In the weeks following the election, I chastised myself for my sudden addiction to social media.  But then I saw that we are all just gathered around together, watching another funeral.

Last night in a dream I missed the turn-off to the highway somewhere on the edge of Appalachia. I met an older couple perched uneasily in lawn chairs on a grassy hilltop high above a bend in a river. Their beautiful, sweeping vista was somehow marred. I could not place it at first, but then realized they were gazing out amidst fracking wells. They told me they had voted for Trump. They were defensive about it, and about the ugly machinery all around them. By way of explanation, they murmured the word “money. ” The thing there was way too little of. I felt too heartbroken to speak.  I got in my car and drove away.

Many say that it was such failures in the art of dialogue that have led us into such deep trouble. I don’t doubt this.  I know I will have to learn to do better with the outraged thudding inside my heart. But it feels like a lesson for another day. Right now, I need to reach for the light being gently passed around by my fellow mourners.

And I am watching these companions with heightened wonderment. Maybe we have been underestimating one another.  Our presence might just render our country less susceptible to the kinds of fascism and demagoguery that wreaked havoc eighty years ago.

Many in our generation have chosen to go deep into our own personal darkness and to embrace it, often at great cost. We’ve worried at times that we were self-centered navel-gazers. But in fact many of us have realized intuitively that the darkness in our psyches and family systems and spirits needed to be acknowledged, tended to, and transformed before we could effectively confront the gathering darkness outside of us.

Our generation has sought out healers of all stripes, a dazzling array of soul-menders the likes of which the cocky, wounded, alienated, repressed Western world has never seen. We brought out into daylight our own shadows, so that we would stop projecting them. We have gathered in creative and spiritual circles and practiced vulnerability. A sizable handful of us have learned to meditate and pray in myriad ways that have led us straight into the Darkness of the divine.

It may be that the awakening of a new, more expansive and clear-eyed consciousness will matter deeply in the current crisis. Maybe Carl Jung was speaking of us when he said, “Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world.”*

Even now we can see the first fruits: our eyes have gradually opened, our old rigidity and fear of the “other” inexorably fallen away.  We have come a long way in breaking down the strict boundaries of gender, sexual orientation, race and tribe that other generations took for granted. The backlash is inevitable, but it does not have to triumph.

And yes, somehow we brought up a generation of children who are the most open-minded, most grounded, least neurotic cohort our society has ever known. Though they cannot know the price we paid for their strong sense of self, our children are an extraordinary gift to the world.

Is it just possible that we are now ready to find our way together in the darkness?


*Psychology and Religion” (1938)


Trading Cookies for Socks in County Jail

All Side Effects May Occur painting by Dan Becker
All Side Effects May Occur
painting by Dan Becker

Recently a family member spent twenty days in a northeastern Ohio county jail. Upon his release, he phoned me, and was soon overcome by anguished sobs. We wept together.

I’d expected to feel pure joy at that moment. But, like him, I’d crossed through a portal I’d never wanted to enter, and the trauma couldn’t just be shaken off.  I wonder now if it ever quite goes away:  the intense vulnerability, the fear, the survivor guilt, the peculiar rage. Maybe it’s just what people live with once they have been personally touched by the “system.”

But why the rage? Hadn’t he deserved his sentence? After all, he could have gotten two months.  Didn’t he need to be taught a lesson? Isn’t that what a smug letter writer in the Cincinnati Enquirer recently proclaimed: “do the crime, do the time?” So simple: what don’t you understand?

But the waves of rage that kept me awake during his incarceration were more unbearable than any I have ever known.  Where did they come from? Whose were they? Who were they aimed at?

My family member lived in a pod of about thirty other guys.  He was given three meals a day, a change of garb twice a week (no underwear), air-conditioning (set way too high), a thin mat for his steel bunk, one blanket, and flip-flops.  To while away the hours, he could choose to watch t.v. (lots of cop shows), gamble at cards to win an extra lunch, pace the floor of the common room for exercise, or sleep all day.

Too cold to sleep, he managed to barter two desserts for a pair of socks. After ten days, with a money order from home, he was able to purchase a pair of boxers at the commissary. He cupped his hands at the faucet whenever he needed a drink, since there were no drinks with meals. He was allowed two books, if sent direct from a bookstore. He got to make frequent phone calls home, since he had family willing to pay the exorbitant fees. At 5:00 a.m., for no particular reason, or certainly not a reason he was informed of (because no one was informed of anything) he and the others received breakfast in a bag, which they saved for later on. Then they attempted, with lights glaring, to go back to sleep till 7:00.

I know human beings often endure greater hardships, which sometimes they choose (as with soldiers) and sometimes are inflicted upon them by natural or man-made disasters. Occasionally, some are ennobled by the adversity.

But somehow the hardships of county jail felt to me custom-designed for building rage. I was stunned by the cute little deprivations, the petty indignities.  Why no underwear? Why the neglecting to inform people ahead of time that they could bring money for the commissary? Why the long routine lockdowns where you were confined to your bunk? Why the short nights and endless days? Why just one hour of fresh air on Tuesdays and Fridays in a small courtyard, playing basketball in flip-flops with blistered feet?

Ignorant as I was of the rationale for all this, my gut churned with a dark explanation: making others squirm is just so satisfying. For everyone from county officials to high-school educated corrections officers, wielding power over those who are down-and-out works wonders.

It allows us to forget that we too could slip some day. We might have one too many drinks and plow into a human being on the highway, might get scared shitless and pull a trigger, might become slave to an addiction, all due to our own unfathomable wounds, combined, perhaps, with poverty, desperation, mental illness, racism, or plain, horrifying bad luck.

When we glibly cry, “Lock them up!” we have to bury all that we have learned about the fragility of the human psyche, the life-long effects of trauma and “Adverse Childhood Experiences.”  We have to ignore how ineffectual punishment has been shown to be in transforming human beings, how it just mostly mows people down, strips them of hope, numbs or embitters them. Psychologically sophisticated parents do not whip their children and send them to bed without their supper. When they are in trouble, they seek help for them.

How is it that so few of us question incarceration for all the hurting children who grow up and magically morph into “those bad guys out there?”  We still assume that society has the right and duty to waste whole human lives for weeks and months, or (in prisons) for years on end, depriving them of all that keeps human beings human:  family, warm touch, expanses of sky, trees and grass, meaningful work, community, the freedom to move, to learn, and personal agency over one’s life.

In the dead of the night, images of so many people locked away with impunity in this strangely vindictive country flooded my imagination. And I could not silence the nagging question:  how long will we keep claiming the right to cage our fellow human beings?

I know sometimes people need to be isolated from society for a while because they are dangerous. But if that were our real motive for incarceration, wouldn’t the harsh conditions we set up be totally gratuitous? Our prisons might look like some Scandinavian prisons, where people actually lead real lives.

Anyway, with these guys in the county jail, we were not talking danger. We were talking mostly heroin. Or mistakes. Stupid crimes, heartless law enforcement.

Surely we can find other ways to hold one another accountable for our wrongdoings, ways that don’t squander God-given lives in deadly boredom and routinely destroy entire families. Surely the need for revenge, understandable in those who are victimized, needs to be gently pried loose from its timeless place of honor in U.S. institutions.

The rage that sabotaged me during those nights often morphed into fury at my husband. I had to remind myself it was not aimed at him. And in fact it seemed to come from well beyond me. I was feeling what the guys in that pod didn’t dare feel, lest it exploded, and led to further punishment. The rage of powerlessness, many of them wondering from day to day how their wives and children were doing, but with families too poor to afford phone calls. Or the rage, hidden even from themselves, at watching those with more resources revel in their Saturday haul of luxuries from the commissary: ramen noodles, a cup, deodorant, an extra blanket.

Or the unendurable rage of knowing nothing about their own future, how long they would be stuck in this limbo of county jail, where no one bothers with any humanizing services; so many guys waiting for their court hearing, waiting for a spot to finally open in rehab, waiting to be transferred to the bigger and better holding pens they call prisons, some day, who knows when.

I can shoulder all this anger on behalf of these men only because I am not under the thumb of the system. Only because my spirit is actively nourished, my emotions honored, my dignity unquestioned.  But isn’t that what all of us need, every moment, every season of our lives? Isn’t that what we owe one another?

A Broken Alleluia

1-NJ Baptism-002
I wonder if some societies mark breakups with a ritual. In our culture we prefer to just move on, to let the past be the past.  But isn’t this an illusion? When people’s lives are intimately entwined, surely we impact each other forever.

I know this is true not just of couples, but of communities, if we are lucky enough to belong to one. In 2001, three months after 9/11, the community of New Jerusalem, which I’d participated in for sixteen years, splintered apart. We’d been embroiled in bitter conflict for a long time when suddenly most of the long-time members decided to walk out.

I still carry a grave sense of responsibility for my own role in that event.  Even though a smaller, more intimate New Jerusalem carried on, and is still miraculously vibrant, the rancorous rupturing of the original community makes for a heavy legacy. A certain energy of sadness and hurt still lingers after all these years. I’ve always wished we could have mourned together what we lost, and made amends for our carelessness with one another.

New Jerusalem has an extraordinary history. It sprang up out of the reforms that swept through the Catholic church in the 1970’s. Flush with a radical vision, members moved into households together, attended peace rallies, and prayed their way through myriad miracles. They fell in love not only with the Spirit, but with one another. They married and started families.

By the time my husband Gerry and I joined them,  they were bonded to one another by over a decade of history. Common traditions, memories, and complex layers of love and forgiveness created a tight network. How could newcomers ever share that deep connection?

Churches, even more than other human systems, replicate our families.  At New Jerusalem  I was plagued by a familiar sense of having arrived too late. Once I had a nightmare that my car wrecked on the bank of a hill, and I discovered all the core members happily gathered around picnic tables, sharing a weekly potluck I had never been invited to. In real life, a long-time member dying of cancer invited us all to pray over her.  I was paralyzed with a sense of being an impostor: surely, I thought, my prayer would mean nothing to her.

An added hurdle was that just like in a family, the older members retained their leadership roles. Newer members often struggled to find a niche. While some succeeded, others came and left again, quietly, without leaving a ripple.

During those years I often felt that I was sitting atop vast caverns of untapped creative energy.  Sometimes I seized the initiative, preaching a homily, running a kids’ program, even leading a public vigil against the first Iraq War. But the impostor feeling continued. One Lent Gerry and I were given permission to lead all the Sunday liturgies. When people complained of our over-exuberance, though, I resigned in humiliation. There was an intense rhythm to my struggles: rouse myself from invisibility, give my all, then boomerang back into bottomless shame at my audacity.

While NJ activated my wounds (and everyone else’s as well)  I never doubted that my longing for a more inclusive, vulnerable community was a vital expression of God’s longing.  I kept imagining all that we could be together. Unlike in a parish, we lay people were totally in charge, unhampered by clerical authority. We brought in priests to help lead our Sunday liturgies, but then they went home. We could live like the early church, if we wanted to.

By 2000, though, I came to believe that few members wanted what I wanted, and clearly not with my fervor. Gerry and I started searching for a new spiritual community among local Protestant churches. Our pilgrimage led us nowhere: one church was too formal, another sexist, another one without spark. We missed New Jerusalem:  how could we not?

And so we decided to do what all the others who had quietly left over the years had never done:  we returned and, along with a good friend, stood up publicly at the end of our service, asking for what we wanted and needed.

We experienced an ominous silence as people listened. The starkness of our impassioned plea struck some raw nerve.  Perhaps it felt like an ultimatum.

From there on out, passions ran high. Members took sides. An us-against-them energy was set loose. For those kindred spirits who’d silently yearned for years to use their gifts more fully,  the rush that came from being finally heard was exhilarating. Structures began to loosen; roles became more fluid. For those who hated conflict it was a miserable time. For the older members, I can only imagine a mix of heart-ache, bewilderment, anger and betrayal.

dreamstime_xs_4695767After the community was pruned so abruptly, new life blossomed forth: shared leadership,  deepened intimacy, the unfolding of hidden gifts.  But we still held onto New Jerusalem’s identity and traditions, the stirring music, the powerful healing prayers.

Fifteen years later,  we are a small circle of aging people.  We see each other’s faults and foibles too well.  Our prayers are deeply personal.  Our awareness of Spirit is exquisite. The sense of blessedness that has moved the community for over forty years has only grown more precious.

But there is no way to close the lid on our history, our poorly ended love affair. It still longs to be brought out into the light, grieved, and honored as one of those passionately flawed wonders God and human beings enjoy creating together.

Side by Side

A few weeks ago we invited the family of our son’s girlfriend to Sunday dinner.  We’d resurrected this old-fashioned ritual when Tony moved back to town. His girlfriend had been raving about our meals to her parents, though it was pretty basic fare, usually including broccoli and cheese sauce because that’s the only way I had ever gotten Tony, 1-MOV00026now age twenty-three, to eat vegetables.

It was a classic setup for awkward conversation, of course, hosting total strangers who, like us, harbored the secret thought we might become family some day.  But the parents and little sister were lively and fun, the lasagna was decidedly runny but tasty, and no one embarrassed the “kids.” We only touched lightly on politics and religion and the interesting fact that our guests were black and Gerry and I were white.  I went to bed that night feeling a little flushed with the social adventure but happy.

Yet at three-thirty in the morning, the usual hour when specters and bogeymen come out of hiding, as if they can read the clock, I was jolted awake.  An urgent and horrifying truth pervaded my whole being.  It was quite beyond embarrassment, even beyond guilt. It wasn’t emotional. It wasn’t even totally mine.  It was a visitation, and I found myself gazing right into its eyes, steadily, fascinated and repelled.

“White privilege,” a voice in my head whispered. I began replaying through a new lens the casual questions we had asked in the course of our conversation, the what-neighborhood-did-you-grow-up-in and the where-have-you-traveled inquiries.  And gradually my vision expanded:  I was seeing our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and the immense gulf created by the troubling history of our two races.  I was aghast at the false innocence permeating our interaction.

Here in my dining room had sat the Elephant that no one ever talks about, even if they get as far as our two families did, sitting down together for a meal. How often does it even happen?  If it weren’t for adopting a bi-racial baby boy twenty-three years ago, would Gerry and I actually go to our graves like so many white Americans barely having to confront personally this peculiar reality we live with day after day?

Even in my mixed-income, mixed-race city neighborhood, you can get by without noticing much. It’s true I shuddered at Tony’s observation as a child, how all the professionals in our neighborhood were white, and how if you were black you were poor.  We tried eagerly to point out that in a couple of other city neighborhoods, there were plenty of black professionals, but our cheerful reassurances never worked.

When Tony was three, he met the neighbor boy who has remained like a brother to him. And we grew close to his gutsy, devoted single mother with her infectious laugh. Our bond allowed her to confidently sign her son up for the soccer league because we had a car that worked. We learned to joke about our cultural differences:  Q. stubbornly insisted that kids should wear jackets outside and greet their elders respectfully. We learned where to find a good barber, and served each other turkey soup on winter days.

It became difficult,  though, to turn a blind eye to the fact that we inhabited separate worlds.  Gerry and I owned two cars, and except for a couple of trials of dented jalopies, our friends took the bus.  We signed our children up for chiropractic visits, while R. just put up with pain. When Tony floundered academically, we scraped up the money and transported him into the suburbs every day to attend a special school. We asked family members to help pay for his summer camp.

Q. was a devoted mother, adept at navigating the system, but her limited choices confounded me. She observed our privileged life without a hint of resentment. In her place I would have seethed.  I had started noticing my rage whenever as a woman I was stereotyped or demeaned. Because my ancestors had come to this continent for opportunity, not in the hull of a slave ship, I found my entitled soul instinctively crying out at any indignity,  “How dare they?”

Indeed, how dared we?

The thing is, I have always seen the dynamic so well in other cultural contexts.  Our parents’ friend from El Salvador, so many years ago, gushed about how she’d supplied a piñata for her maid’s child’s birthday party. “A child needs a piñata!” she exclaimed. And I remember wondering if she ever questioned not just the lack of a piñata, but the whole system of two sets of people living side by side, their expectations defined by the class they were born into.

But here in Cincinnati my neighbors and I greet each other on the street, then go our separate ways. We return to homes that often starkly reflect the legacy of disparate histories we never chose, yet these shape every aspect of our lives, and, most deplorably, those of our children.

During those early morning hours when I was visited by the truth, I calmed myself by sitting in the lamplight putting together a jigsaw puzzle. It was so lovely, the way the pieces fit together, just right, just so, and a beautiful new picture was shaping up before my eyes. It felt like a prayer.

Being Big, Being Small

1-Mom and PJ
My mother with great-grandson P.J.

I don’t know at what point in recent U.S. history children routinely started feeling wiser than their parents. This attitude felt so normal to me in my young adulthood, I never questioned it. Mothering my feisty teen-age daughter eventually made me wonder if something was wrong. Surely the “Question Authority” button I’d once sported wasn’t meant to be taken quite so seriously? But it was only in attending my first family constellation workshop in 2005 that I finally realized how much this topsy-turvy parent-child thing had been sapping my energy for decades.

There is something surprisingly conservative about family constellation work, developed in Germany in the 1980’s by Bert Hellinger. When I tell people I am trained in this healing modality they assume I am involved in some New Age practice that is way-out, and that’s why so few people in the U.S. have heard of it. But maybe its insights just don’t easily resonate with the rebellious, psychologically pseudo-sophisticated North American soul. I will never forget how in my first workshop I gazed into the eyes of a stranger who was representing my mother, and saw the woman who gave birth to me in all her mysterious grandeur for the first time.

A core insight of family constellation workshops is that we can never be “bigger” than our parents. When we secretly look down on those who gave us life, judging them, dissecting their faults, we lose our own grounding. I didn’t gain this insight from any of the mainstream psychotherapists whom I’d worked with through the years.  No, it was as if once the idea of blaming our mothers for all our problems entered the air many decades ago, even the most progressive forms of psychotherapy seemed to be infected by it.

I recently heard an interview with author Meredith Maran ( She has written several memoirs, the first one at age forty-five, the most recent one at sixty-five. She regrets the hurt she caused her mother in her first book, and is sincerely hoping her own children will gain more perspective before they write about her!  She reflects that we could all easily write an entirely new portrait of our parents every ten years.

I understood, because in the twenty years between my first attempts to portray my mother’s complex character in writing, and the last revisions of my memoir Ollie Ollie In Come Free, my perspective changed profoundly. I was taken aback by my original presumptuousness.

I remember back to my teen-age years, when I, like most kids in our culture, first began to set myself above my mother.  I thought Mom was too wrapped up in her own family, not self-sacrificing enough, because she did not bake cookies for neighbors in need as some other mothers did. I thought she and Dad should take in a foster child. Never mind that she had seven kids, was dealing with Dad’s multiple sclerosis, and was up to her ears in community commitments.

I wonder, looking back on my adolescent judgments, whether they were my early way of dealing with helpless feelings as I first became conscious of a hurting world.  They were my cry of “Someone do something! This is intolerable!”  Since I myself could have so little impact on the world around me, I thought my mother, the all-powerful, was just being selfish and insular. And where had I received my desire to make a better world? From my mother!

I can honestly affirm now, relatively late in life, that I really do not know what made my mother tick.  I can only reflect on what I observed in her, entirely through my own lens.  Her personality traits, the ones that so maddened me, the ones that I blamed for my own trials and tribulations in life, may or may not have been as I saw them. How can I possibly know?

One of my younger sisters, who took care of Mom during her years of failing memory, and eventually failing body, used to judge her with as jaded an eye as I did.  But during those years of nursing her, the scales fell away from my sister’s eyes. So she awaited the publication of my memoir with deep anxiety about how I would portray Mom, so soon after her death. She did not want me to violate her transformed love and respect. When she read my book, she was greatly relieved, and I was relieved that she was relieved.

When I first started writing my memoir, it was to voice my truth, and this included my sometimes harsh version of truth about my parents. By publication, after eight years of family constellation work and many tender moments with my aged mother, I knew I had no truth to offer, just my own subjective experience. How could it be otherwise?

What we experience viscerally in constellation workshops is that children really never can know their parents.  The parents’ lives — their dreams, wounds, joys, disillusionments — lie beyond the scope of their children’s understanding. Ultimately, all we can do is bow to our parents (we sometimes do this literally) and the gift of life they have given us.


For more information on Anne’s family constellation work, visit

The Outing of Mercy


© Yaoshengbo | - Kwan-yin Statue And Dragon Photo
© Yaoshengbo | – Kwan-yin Statue And Dragon Photo

It took my breath away last month to read “mercy” in the headlines of the Cincinnati Enquirer’s mostly right-wing editorial page. Twice in a week’s time, too! The plea was to get over punishing addicts, and give them real help.

It seems mercy is finally coming out of the closet. It has been in hiding a long time, in fact forever–in church, in state, in schools, in courts. Pope Francis has proclaimed this the jubilee year of mercy. Meanwhile even in our perennially merciless nation, the only thing the Republicans and Democrats can agree on is that our criminal justice system needs a major overhaul. They don’t yet dare use the word “mercy,” but mercy’s in the air…way, way overdue.

I’ve had this thing for mercy since I was very young. It’s caused me no end of problems, this constant desire to get everybody off the hook. I’ve been accused quite recently by a lawyer in our family of not believing in evil. I never quite know what to do with such accusations. Certainly I recognize evil when I see it, and it’s rampant, and it makes me weep. But my confusion lies in holding individuals accountable for it.

This is probably related to my ongoing arguments with my husband over free will. I have never been convinced in my gut that it exists.  It seems to me that everyone is thoroughly shaped by the energies of their family system and the events of their lives.  The very fact that I can see clearly enough to make morally wise choices is through no particular virtue of my own.

Nor is my longing for mercy in the world something I have chosen and cultivated. I really believe, with all my heart, that this troublesome fixation was planted in me by divine grace, and nurtured by circumstance. It was probably fed most by survivor guilt after my siblings’ deaths.  Even though I was consistently “good” growing up, I always secretly felt guilty. So I identified privately with perpetrators. Victims didn’t need my love — they had everyone else’s. But who would love the guilty one?  Even God was planning on abandoning them in hell. Being more merciful than God himself, as others defined him, made me very lonely.

My inability to violate the call of mercy deep within my being caused me heart-wrenching confusion when I struggled to give my growing children consequences for their misbehaviors. I could never feel at home in the acts of tough love required of me as a parent. Disciplining the kids felt so hopelessly difficult and unnatural, all this bracing of the will, shutting off of the heart, holding in of the breath. How did it all come so easily to other parents?

On a miserable stint as a classroom teacher in a local boys’ high school many years ago, I found myself unable to dole out detentions for misbehaviors. They called these “j.u.g.,” standing for “justice under God,” and somehow it seemed all the male teachers enjoyed handing them out. I kept getting inside the boys’ heads, imagining their point of view, minimalizing their transgressions.

They walked all over me, of course. I kept groping my way in the dark towards a more humane, cooperative system. I was told I was trying to “feminize” the classroom, that boys could not respond to my attempts at community. Counselors and teachers, with their hard-ass energy, tried to toughen me up, reminding me this was for the good of the whole class (which I didn’t doubt) but in each act of heart-tightening, I felt I was violating something sacred in my own nature.

I am plagued by compassion for even the most “hardened” criminal.  I shield my eyes from stories in the paper about people getting sentenced for crimes that, it seemed to me, were almost accidents. While involving myself in movements for social justice, whenever the call turns from reform of racist practices to seeking guilty verdicts for individuals, I can’t participate. I turn off public radio in the midst of stories that pit my endless sorrow for the victims with my anguish for the perpetrator. Within me there’s just a huge, global pity for the whole human race.

I place my hope in the budding movement toward mercy. It is fundamentally a great shift in our societal energy field. One outcome could be the blossoming of “restorative justice.” Instead of the time-honored retributive justice system that fills our prisons to overflowing, this new vision holds people responsible for their actions while finding ways to restore dignity to their lives.  This I might be able to deal with.

So this is the year of mercy. But maybe we are meant to go beyond the moral dualism that mercy implies. Maybe the insight we are slowly gaining as a society is that a moralistic lens is not helpful. Labeling those who struggle as “less-than” will not cleanse society of its impurities. Our age-old, knee-jerk, ego-protective closing of the heart to one another’s wounds, sorrows, limitations, and failures will not lead us into a better world. What is helpful, and real, I think, is to recognize that we are all in this together.


to see more on the theme of “mercy” in my life, see chapter 19 in my book:





dreamstime_xs_37875333My daughter, at age thirty-one, confessed during her recent holiday visit that she had always longed for an American Girl doll when she was growing up.  I received her comment with my mother-guilt in full throttle. I chastised myself for never realizing how much it mattered to her, and thought, “If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy her Samantha.”

I sat there judging myself for the intransigence of my simple-lifestyle principles when the children were growing up. Was I just cheap, as they claimed? Silently, miserably, I replayed images of those lost years: my daughter prancing into the living room on Christmas morning, taking in all the toys surrounding our tinseled tree. I noticed for the first time how she fixed her smile, and swallowed her disappointment, and cheerfully embraced the doll-who-wasn’t-what-she-wanted. And I wept inwardly, for her, for myself, for the hurt that I caused when I could so easily have made her happy.

I guess you could call it a Christmas illusion. Or a mother illusion. Or a human illusion. How convinced I have been at the deepest level of my being that what defines a good parent is properly psyching out my children’s desires and giving them what they want!

Confronted throughout the holidays by my three adult children’s unflinchingly honest reflections on our family’s past, I found myself riding waves of regret. It was the first Christmas in three years that they had all come home.  They’d added to the mix now our daughter’s Ecuadorian husband and our older son’s girlfriend. We’d been separated by extreme distance and circumstance. Perhaps too by our fears of re-awakened expectations and un-examined hurts?

Our life together in years past was marked by our own private form of suffering, like many families, and our holidays were swollen with drama no one ever asked for in their letters to the North Pole. How to explain it all but to say that our youngest, the little one we adopted at birth and cherished, never felt at home with us and could not stop raging from his earliest years at the arbitrariness of his life?

So we gathered for the holidays amid unresolved trauma, nostalgia for all that we had done “right,” hope and wariness, stress levels one could cut with a knife, widely disparate needs, a remarkable spirit of truth-speaking, and the rich, undeniable love for one another I prayed would carry us through.

We were strangely accident prone at first. A cloth napkin burned to ashes on the stove top and left a hole in the kitchen counter; a prized candelabra was swept off its perch and smashed into dozens of pieces. And the visiting girlfriend discovered she was wildly allergic to our cat, so we spent half of Christmas afternoon madly scrubbing down the house we’d already worked so hard to clean, trying to get rid of the dander. I found myself rehearsing cliches: “roll with the punches,” “go with the flow” as miscommunications multiplied and we never had the expected number of people at any meal.

After a few days, just as I was settling into the unpredictability, learning to fine-tune my communication style, re-adjusting myself to being ever available but never over-attached to my children’s presence or crushed by their absence, there came the type of quick-flash explosion that used to rock our family routinely, shaking us all to the core: the violent words, the overturned chair, the stomping out of the house. And the rest of the week was colored by a renewal of sibling resentments, but with new-found, startling compassion seeping through the cracks.

When they were all gone, after ten days, I cried bitterly. I wept because I had failed once again to give my children what they wanted. They had arrived with expectations, and departed with disappointment at what we could not achieve as a family. It was just as it had always been, too much for us all, because the template of family harmony that was nestled so deep within our spirits could not manifest itself, not this Christmas, maybe never?

Yet as I surrendered my grief to a wider field of awareness, a truth crept in. My children never did need me to give them everything they wanted. I did not need my parents to give me all that I yearned for either. Even while my mother lay awake each Christmas Eve worried that one child’s pile of gifts was bigger than another, my psyche was already taking a baby-step toward the lifetime challenge of embracing disappointment.

Just as I would not for a minute trade my hard-earned maturation, shaped through longing and loss, for superficial happiness, so too my children’s souls know better than to think that they incarnated on this earth to be fulfilled in their every wish. As I watch them struggle and yearn, I see their adult spirits slowly taking shape, so much more complicated and multi-layered than if I had orchestrated it all.

I still wish I had given my daughter that doll. I still wish with all my heart that I could have given our youngest a sense of groundedness and belonging. I would love to have had the foresight and God-like ability to make all the right choices, rendering my children’s journeys sublimely tranquil and sanguine. But I have caught yet another glimpse this Christmas of how life is so much bigger, and more breathtaking, than our wishes.

for information on my book, Ollie Ollie in Come Free: A Memoir of Swallowed Time, see

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Don’t Write about Me!

dreamstime_xs_32322120“Keep writing, but don’t write about me!”

Funny I didn’t even notice, till my sister Peggy pointed it out, how central she was to my memoir. I thought the book was just about me! I was stunned by her accusation that she was “on every other page,” and hardly presented in a glowing light.

My child narrator had asked neither Peggy’s permission nor mine. Had my adult self taken the reins, she no doubt would have toned down the sibling rivalry scenes. After all, as an adult I had no bone to pick with my older sister. We had long since worked through our childhood stuff and I could truthfully declare I had nothing but utmost respect and love for her. But tell that to my child self.

My memoir emerged from the free-association I had experienced in psychoanalysis. In my few adult sections I could be respectful and balanced. But my overarching goal was to give my child self, as a stand-in for all children, the voice she never had. I let her talk. I did not attempt to soften what she had to say. And I never expected her to be reasonable and take an adult perspective.

After my former psychoanalyst read my manuscript, I was admittedly a little dismayed when he volunteered that he’d fallen quite in love with my bossy older sister. He exclaimed that she was spunky, spirited and delightful. Really? I pointed out to him that she also had been quite mean to me, and I wrestled with a sense of betrayal that he identified with her over me, his long-time client. He had to reassure me he hadn’t gone over to the dark side.

It is striking that I didn’t even notice the problem with my book that took center stage for all my sisters, who declared I had “vilified” Peggy. How had I missed it?  Sibling rivalry had always been part of the air we breathed. Didn’t all families breathe this same air? While I was perennially wistful, I felt no outrage about Peggy’s behavior  because it felt so normal– an inevitable backdrop in psychoanalysis, and in my memoir as well.  I had never worried my depiction of my sister would leave her vulnerable to people’s judgments.

Another blind spot for me lay in the very fact that Peggy was my big sister:  the mixed-up child-and-adult Anne still couldn’t imagine that I had the power to hurt her. As far as I was concerned, she was still indomitable. I could pummel her on the chest for hours with the weight of my little fists and she wouldn’t budge. Not that I had ever dared try.

I had actually thought Peggy and I had cleared the air twenty-three years ago when I revealed to her, tremulously, after endless therapy and much spiritual preparation, my realization that she had played the abuser when we were kids and she had played the victim. My words were strong but loving and without judgment. I had come to see that neither one of us had had any control over the roles we had taken on in our grieving family. At that encounter over lunch, she had taken in my words with a soulful gaze and responded, “I think you’re right.”

In all the years I spent writing my memoir, that conversation stayed with me. It was tacit approval from my big sister to tell the truth about our childhood struggles. And so I wrote freely about our mutual jealousy and resentments, believing Peggy was fully on board. In my mind, we had mourned our bumpy ride and forgiven one another. But I learned after publication that this pivotal moment in our relationship as adults seems to have not carried the weight for my sister that it had carried for me. Did she even remember our conversation at all?

When Peggy and I were kids, I was the one who was preoccupied with being good. She, on the other hand, seemed to relish transgressing boundaries in small ways , and she was admired even by our parents for her high spirits. She grew up, though, to be thoroughly good, a community leader, altruistic and compassionate. To see herself in the mean role drawn with the crude strokes of a little sister’s crayon was no doubt shocking.  She hadn’t spent years, as I had, coming to terms with her shadow side.

It is obviously not possible, unless you have been a hermit since birth, to write a memoir about yourself without it being about others you love. It is surely no more possible to write a memoir and retain your sense of innocence within the family. I wanted to tell my story from the child’s perspective, raw and overwhelming, never co-opted by the adult tendency to minimize. There was no way to do this honestly without causing hurt. As I published Ollie Ollie In Come Free I really believed, naively, that I had managed to create a book that was essentially kind.  But if it were so risk-free to be honest we would all do it all the time. And clearly few of us do.

So this blog post is all about me, but I am writing about my big sister too. How can it be otherwise?


for information on Ollie Ollie In Come Free: A Memoir of Swallowed Time, visit


What Are the Kids Up To?

dreamstime_xs_58025196Recently a friend and I were discussing our strong need to mend hurts and resolve conflicts. Most people, my friend commented, just prefer to let things slide. I recalled some episodes where my attempts to reconcile have been met with glib reassurances that everything is fine, leaving me feeling crazy. If things were fine, where could I go with my guilt and regret?

This unfinished business we all carry is, of course, part of life. Yet when I contrast its bland fruit, a sense of emptiness and lingering wistfulness, with the miracles of reconciliation that spring up now and then, I wonder how much we are all missing by our philosophical attitude. Surely it’s a smoke-screen for our terror of confrontation.

So many of my friendships have been saved and even deepened because someone (not necessarily I) has had the courage to confront hard truths. So miserable at the time, but yielding such richness, even decades later…

Our next door neighbors call a meeting. Oh,oh: I know why! Our three-year-old Janie has scratched their daughter Lydia viciously on the forehead (the scar will never disappear.) I feel the heat of shame rising in me as this other couple, sitting tensely forward in our living room armchairs, struggles to understand our parenting style. There is something remarkably soulful about their passion, their anguished honesty.  “It seems as if you’re stricter with our daughter than you are with your own.” “Your kids may grow up fine, but they’ll put you through hell first!” I mull over their incisive comments for years.  Our encounters still brim, though, with a warm spirit.

A few months ago, I was startled to have an old friend reach out to me on Facebook after nine years of silence. I had let our friendship go midst much regret, feeling powerless because loyalty to a third party was involved, a hopelessly complex dynamic.

When we sat down for a cup of tea, my friend began by chatting cheerfully, as if there was no elephant in the room. I immediately felt my insides welling up, engulfing me in a familiar panic. I’ve come to understand this panic, how old it is, how it takes over when no one is talking about anything real. And the more “real” there is to talk about, the stronger the panic. When I was a child it was death that never got talked about. Then as time went on, it was life itself, emotions, desires, secrets.

My friend no doubt thought she should work up gradually to the heart of the matter. But what if we never got there? I took an epic breath and plunged in abruptly, re-opening the painful story and all our feelings.

For the next hour I couldn’t stop crying! All the shock and sorrow of what had happened between us had hung out silently in all of the cells of my body, it seemed, all these years. And I had had no clue. I, like so many other people, had chosen to stuff my feelings and coldly resign myself to watching a friendship die. And now, such a rush of relief!

I have always relished community, in all shapes and sizes. As a result, though, I have often found myself embroiled in politics, and own my part in some painful divisions. Rifts within communities are so much harder to reconcile than rifts within individual relationships. Where does one start? Remembering words that wounded, the egging on of separate camps, the demonizing, the power-struggles, the contradictory longings, the conflicting loyalties, the diverse perspectives…how can any of it ever be resolved? Do we just accept that life is complex and sad, that communities inevitably fail eventually, and move on?

Perhaps so. But what about the signs that we really haven’t moved on at all, that we still are carrying the wounds? The tell-tale sign, in my experience, is not our emotions, which have receded into the background, but uneasiness in one another’s presence, and the pallid conversations that taper off at such a predictable point…

We meet in the grocery store. It would be rude to ignore each other, and besides, all that stuff was in the past. So we greet each other with false friendliness, covering up the pain, the remnants of anger, negating all the years when we struggled to share life with open hearts. And the conversation always begins, and ends, with “How are the kids? What are they up to?”

The questions that never get asked are these:”How are you? How are you really? What kinds of joys and challenges are you encountering?…Have you ever made any sense out of what happened between us? Do you ever regret that it all ended the way it did?”

I have always figured there has to be a heaven, so we can say what never got said in this life. I am one who holds out, though, for miracles on this side of the grave. Grieving together the blindness of the past, mourning what might have been, honoring what we have learned. Through all this, not just restoring the richness that has been lost, but creating something new.

This template for the “peaceable kingdom” is always within me, spurring me on. Probably it’s buried deep in all of us. When the deepest hurts are brought around into the light of grace, they are transformed. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.”

To learn more about Anne’s writings and workshops, visit:



Taking up Space

my great-great-great-aunt Arthemise Bouligny

Ever since I discovered Family Constellation work in 2005,  I have been paying  attention to the more mysterious side of my family — Dad’s French Creole ancestors. While Mom used to regale us with delightful family stories– like the tale of her prim Scottish great-grandmother setting her new husband straight on their wedding night: “Na-na, Matthew,  none o’ that.”– Dad told no stories, and there were obviously plenty  to be told. After all, his  ancestors were adventurers, “voyageurs” making their way down the Mississippi, or statesmen whose vague connections with a Civil War general gave us bragging rights.

In April, 2014 I visited New Orleans to try to flesh out some of the mystery.  It was about time. I hadn’t been there since I was four years old, and had barely met my first cousins. Besides spending delightful hours with them, I pored through donated family documents at the Historical Society, hungry for personal letters  written by some of the women whose energy I had experienced in constellation work.

But my eager library search led me nowhere. It seemed all I was going to know of the typically long lives of those once-vibrant women was their pretty French names and the dates of their births, marriages, and funerals. Had they all left the world without a single record of their thoughts, their experiences, their joys and struggles and heart-aches?

I felt so saddened that, even though these were literate women who must have written letters, and maybe even diaries, nothing had been deemed worth keeping. How much space had they felt they could take up in the world? Had it even occurred to them that their own lives were significant?

Yet these women live on in me, genetically, energetically, and perhaps especially powerfully in the legacy of their taboos! The fear and shame I feel when overstepping  irrational boundaries of “too-much”ness– haven’t they been handed down from generation to generation as surely as silver soup ladles?  My ancestors would recognize too well the part of me that still hangs back tsk-tsking behind my fan (so to speak) when others express themselves unabashedly or delight openly over an accomplishment.

All of this was much on my mind during my trip to New Orleans because I was struggling at the time to get up the nerve to publish my memoir. I was fiercely wrestling  with my ancestors’ internalized commentary ” Why would you want to do such a thing?” “Watch what secrets you reveal!”, “Your personal experiences should be kept to yourself!”

I have been wondering, as I mark the one-year anniversary of my book’s publication, if underlying all this fear of revelation is a universal taboo against disturbing a family’s dominant narrative, the one everyone’s stories have to fit into. How rare it is for families to listen to, and take in, the personal experiences of each member.  Each individual’s narrative is forever shrouded in mystery, and all that is left is the family story, so amorphous that it is certainly more myth than history.

In family constellation work, we observe that the family’s survival needs typically take precedence over the needs of its members.  Individuals’ stories are bound to endanger the family myth, disturb the family’s sense of purpose and cohesiveness through the generations,  and disorient everyone in the system. They threaten to expose that the family is not entirely as it believes itself to be.

My need to tell the story of my own childhood as revealed  in psychoanalysis would have been frowned on by past generations, who surely could not imagine it is a good thing for children or women or maybe even a good man to “take up space” by exploring, let alone revealing, their own personal truth.

However, I went ahead and published my memoir because I had  internalized other voices, ones that were more expansive and enlivening. So it was that a year ago I went about eagerly planning a book launching celebration that would fully and unreservedly express my joy.  I boldly scheduled my celebration for a Saturday evening — how nervy was that?– reserving a large space at Women Writing (for) a Change. I invited friends from every era and arena of my adult life, past and present, not knowing who would be thrilled for me, and who would be chillingly indifferent.

Over fifty people gathered that night. I was exhilarated. My spirit was wide open, my soul luminous, my hugs unrestrained. When, after a few moments’ sheer terror, I began to read a chapter from my book, I caressed every word, and delighted in people’s resonance.

Afterwards, fielding questions, I spoke without any anxiety at all, and I heard my own words for what they were, loving and warm and straight from my heart. This energy flowed into the signing of each person’s book, such a personal, soulful connection. Seldom, in all my life, had I felt such grace flowing within and without in a situation which could have been entirely nerve-wracking had I not been momentarily freed, by sheer grace, from constricting taboos.

I believe my ancestors, who I imagine are  now enjoying full knowledge and freedom, were blessing that event. I like to think that they have had a hand in showing me that taking up space is the only way to live.