A Perfect World

Last weekend I attended the yearly Forum conference of the Northwest Alliance for Psychoanalytic Study. One breakout session was called, “What Happens to the Alchemist?’, facilitated by Sandra Christiensen, ARNP, Tanya Ruckstuhl, LICSW, and Gillian Vik LMHC. We participated in writing and art exercises exploring the response to collective trauma.

Tanya asked us to write a description of our perfect world. I had no idea my response would be so emotional. I had tears in my eyes as I wrote the following:

“In childhood the possibilities were limitless. Spirit reigned. Companions were filled with laughter and mischief.

I would have a world now that feels that way. A democracy that is real; social justice the primary value. Wealth used in service of this primary value, including imagination, art, nature, the new words carved on the base of the Statue of Liberty, She, Venus, our MS Liberty, welcoming not only our huddled masses yearning to be free, but our artists, our lovers of life.

Greed will be boring in my brave new world, banished to frogs who want more mantises in the night.

Humans will want light and community, with each other.

He would weep, I know this somehow, Carl Gustave Jung, holding a candle in the last year of his life. He saw a very dark vision for humanity—in a dream or a day vision.

Do I believe him? I have a granddaughter. She seeks joy. A future. Inside I flip back and forth, from despair to denial, “Oh even Trump can’t be so bad…”

Joy, where are you?”

The next part of our writing assignment was to take what we could from our Perfect World description and bring it into our lives now.

I wrote:

“Continue to make art, to love, to give. Call Pramilla (our representative in the US Congress) more often to tell her she’s doing a great job.

See, feel the beauty of the earth. See, feel, the gratitude for the wealth of my life: my family, friends, the amazing people in my psychotherapy practice, the Daphne blooming in the garden.”

Many of us in the workshop read our writing aloud, both The Perfect World, and the Alchemical distillation of it into the now. We left talking among ourselves, sharing what flowers we were planting in our gardens, what marches we were going to attend. There was a lightness, and, yes, a joy.

The ancient Alchemists practiced in secret, attempting with their art to transform lead into gold. We can take their example and strive each day to transform our worry, our grief as we witness so much trauma in the news, into the experience of the now. There we can find the gold of activism, and the resplendent wonder of nature in Spring.


I don’t know about you, but lately, I feel caught in a stream of polarities, like a bug caught in two spider webs. On the world stage, our politics emerge in black and white, either/or versions of reality: climate change is a hoax/ California is so committed to climate change they will negotiate on their own with other nations…the Russians are our allies/ We will enter a new arms race and beat the hell out of them…. Women are objects of powerful male’s desires/Women are powerful, valuable beings who can win the popular vote for president of the United States.

How do we find a place to live sanely in such a split apart world?

One way to understand it is to look at the psychology of patriarchy. Dominance is powered by the righteous beliefs of the ruling oligarchy: one side must be Right, the other horribly Wrong.

However, there is an ancient wisdom that runs on a very different fuel, a wisdom expressed in many cultures and mythologies. In their seminal work, Dancing in the Flames: the Dark Goddess and the Transformation of Consciousness, Marion Woodman and Elinor Dickson write of the ancient Indian goddess, Kali. Possessing four arms, she holds tools of destruction in each hand:  a saber, a man’s head, a bowl of blood, a spear. Yet her head is surrounded by a halo, attesting to her role as the Goddess of Light: she who transforms destruction into creation. Kali is not about black and white, either/or. She is one body, one consciousness: both/and.

This view of reality is corroborated by quantum physics (matter is at once a particle and a wave) and chaos theory (unity emerging from the chaos of the natural world). Yet it holds little weight with those who can ignore science, much less understand the subtle interactions of the human mind and soul.  The reality of paradox  is threatening to those who would dominate through a winner-take-all view of the world.

What can we do?  We who observe this but feel powerless to change it?  We can protest. We can give to empowering organizations. But, also, this vision of Kali can be brought much closer to home, into the everyday, sacred moments of our own lives.

Kali invites us to embrace the wisdom of paradox, of both/and. It also opens us to a new interpretation of loss. If death and birth emanate from one source,  our own lives a molecule of meaning on a path through this life cycle, we can come to experience loss, not only as inevitable, but as unsentimental, as necessary. Death makes way for birth and re-birth, in the physical world, and in the human heart.

In the final week of my father’s life, his baby sister, my Aunt Doris, came to the hospital from her home many miles away. I had not seen her since childhood. In my father’s final ten days, we spent every waking hour together. We discovered each other anew, adult to adult. She had a deep spiritual belief balanced by her cool, scientific mind. We went on to nourish our close relationship over the next thirty years.

My father’s death was devastating to me, a loss I grieve to this day. But the vivid dreams his death inspired, and the desperate curiosity it awakened in my young mind, led me to graduate school in psychology, and to my profession as a psychotherapist. My father’s death was, in a very real sense, the birth of my soul.

It also brought Aunt Doris into my life.

Fast forward thirty years, to a hot Arizona summer in 2012, when I visited her, after she had suffered a stroke. I recently discovered this piece I wrote at that time, the last I would spend with her before Alzheimer’s consumed her once so luminous mind:

Her eyes, one more open than the other, dominate the bones of her face.

“It’s you,” she whispers. “You’re here.”

I kiss her cheek. Tell her how beautiful she is;  stroke her soft white hair.

She touches my gray strands with effort. “You are so young.”

I laugh.

Her slender form is like leaves resting on the ground.

“I have thoughts I cannot finish,” she says.

I nod.

“I was always so—-“

“Independent,” I finish.

“Always. Where is the future?” she asks.

I say, “Be here now.”

Her chin shakes, “I still know you—“

“Yes, “ I touch the soft skin beneath her eyes.

“You’ve always been one of my favorite people, “ she says.

“You’re the mother I never had,” I whisper.

She pulls herself to stand, with great effort. I slide the walker into her hands.

“Thank you,” she says. “I keep —“

“Forgetting to use it,” I finish.

“I’m losing it,” she says.

 “It’s okay,” I say, knowing it is. Knowing it is not.

She died a year later. Her death foreshadowed the struggle in me to accept my own aging body, and embrace my identity as a crone. As defined by Woodman and Dickson the crone is the wise woman who is whole unto herself. She may need to depend on others to open a heavy door for her, or pull her up out of the lava rocks along the beach, but her mind and soul are simultaneously embracing new energy, depth, and imagination. A virgin forest coming alive, even as the leaves shrivel and will ultimately fall.

I sometimes hear Doris’s voice in my mind, dispensing her home-grown humor and wise counsel. At other times, I whisper to her as I go for a walk, or stand  in line at the grocery store. It makes me happy to see her in my mind, to imagine her response as I share some new revelation about how to live on this earth with four arms. “You have to balance all the paradoxes, “ I say, putting the soy milk on the conveyor belt, “Like Kali, dancing with all the losses, welcoming the new growth…”.

Going into 2017, I believe the best way to co-exist with the patriarchy is to fully embody all the passions of a creative life: our both/and, seeing in every death, the opportunity for something new to be born.

How have you experienced this in your own life? What birth, however subtle, has come from a death, however necessary?


Projection: the attribution of one’s own attitudes, feelings, or desires to someone or something. –The American College Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin. 2000

            We all do it. Seeing in someone, most specifically a powerful public figure, what we deeply long for in order to complete the drive in our psyche for wholeness.

It is unconscious. Instantaneous. I know I did it when Obama became our first African American president. I stared at the New Yorker cover of his lean, handsome face in a white George Washington wig. I felt a flood of adoration. Barack Hussein Obama was a flawless god-like figure: the projection of a young part of myself who longs for justice and goodness in a complex world of darkness, light, and every shade of grey.

Projection allows us to bypass, rationalize and justify all the evidence that defaces our object of adoration. If you watch the mechanisms of your mind, you can feel this in action.: a sort of mental hiccough, a veil coming across your brain, literally blocking out rational incoming thought.   Never has this phenomenon been more wildly at play than in our recent presidential election.

How do we make meaning of this? How do we find a common ground that transcends–but does not deny–the huge schism in Americans’ values and perceptions?

Carl Jung wrote of the Shadow. Not only our “dark side” but the part of us that is unknown, that lives in the yet-to-be-discovered corners of our psyche. Shadow is typically unconscious, until something –or someone – challenges our view of ourselves, frightens us, or emerges as our enemy.

If we add the Shadow into the projection stew of the last 18 months, we see a field day for both idealized and shadow projections onto both presidential candidates.  Yes, of course, the economics, the anger of displaced workers, the social justice issues, women’s rights, and so on figure into this. That is the rational side. I am suggesting that the snake slithering beneath the carpet of our rational discourse, is our unconscious projections.  If we are searching for meaning and a path to unity, we need to rip up the carpet and welcome the snake to the table.

What does this look like?

We can tune in to the activity of our own minds.  Say we see a woman on tv in a pink shirt that reads, “Women for Trump”.  Does our projection-mind immediately flash: “Boy, she must be really stupid.” Or “I’ll bet she is a housewife with no mind of her own.” Or, “What did he pay her to put on that shirt?”

The truth is, we have no idea who that woman is, or what her motives are. By projecting our own shadow onto her, it becomes our bad, not hers.

Can we catch ourselves? Can we stop it.? Just stop it. Then, if we are interested in our own personal growth, we might ask, “What shadow longing in me made me project that stuff into her?” – Maybe we have a secret longing to trust a man that much. Maybe we are conflicted in our own hearts about who we support and who we voted for, and this women in pink represents certainty……Maybe our mother always wanted us to be a strong independent woman and never let us wear pink?  Maybe we have un-met dependency needs from childhood, and imagine that the woman in pink can depend on others? The possibilities are endless. Only an inquiry into our own personal history, conscience, and emotions can guide us.

I was moved to tears when I watched Hilary Clinton’s concession speech. I don’t know how she did it. So much pain in those sleepless eyes. And yet she rose to her moment in history, even to the point of asking all of us to support President-elect Trump, to see him with an open mind and “give him a chance to lead.”

What a gift she gave to our nation. Can we take this further, into our homes and communities? Can we see the unity of being in all of us?  Can we realize that we have a strong common ground in longing for our candidates to fulfill our deepest hopes, and heal our deepest wounds? Likewise, that we all demonize and project fear into the persona of leadership that threatens our deepest need for wholeness.

Can we honor this unity of our common psychological nature, and use this election to come to know ourselves, to know and honor our neighbor, and to open our minds, following the shining example of our first woman presidential candidate, Hilary Rodham Clinton? I invite you to join me in making a commitment to do this, even as I honor the duel reality of fightimg with a new fierceness for the values that Hilary represented to so many of us: equal justice for all, the rights of women, and the power of the feminine to lead us into a brave new world.


Here we are: October 31. Halloween. I don’t know about you, but in my childhood it was all about how much candy I could rake in that night. Oh, sure, the pumpkin carving was fun, but my mom never made nutrient-rich pumpkin soup. And we never ate the apples we bobbed for. It was all about the object of desire: Sugar.

            In recent years there has been a growing awareness of how unhealthy it is to consume abundant quantities of sugar but these messages are trumped by a long-standing cultural mandate that if you don’t join in during the holidays and eat that big slice of Aunt Mary’s cream pie, you are being selfish and rude.

As the specter of the holidays looms, I have begun to frame it in a new way: How do I cultivate a different relationship with consumption?  Not just of food and spirits, but gifts or clothing or anything that vibrates with the lure of desire.  In  her book, The Zen of Eating, psychologist Ronna Kabotznik refers to the “numinous muffin”, numinous being the experience of divine love. So often our objects of desire take on this quality — I must have it, and when I get it, “I” will shiver with pleasure, and be transported from my ordinary, often anxious or depleted state, into an altered state of being.

The genesis of this very human behavior goes very deep, often into a childhood where the candy at Halloween, or the sweet cakes at Christmas were the only respite from the lack of “treats” in the emotional life of the family. In the case of an extreme like anorexia, children deny consumption, rather than join in the feast, in the hopes of gaining some sense of control in a chaotic family.

To alter our relationship with consumption, the first question is: “What am I really hungry for?” Instead of embarking on the holidays by saying, “What do I get to eat at this party?”, ask, “What if it is not about giving myself permission to indulge, but about opening myself to a new reality of possibilities?”

I spoke to someone recently who has given up wine, once a pleasure so desired that she organizing all of her time to optimize her ability to drink. Her consumption was not on a level where anyone would call her an alcoholic, but she realized this was part of the problem. She blended in with the cultural norm. It took a personal crisis for her to wake up to the true nature of her relationship to wine. She sought help, and now, 3 months alcohol-free, she reports experiencing life in a new way.

“The leaves on the trees seem more vibrant. I notice the pain and beauty in every moment. I cry at the footage of the siege of Aleppo. I laugh with the checker at the store and we share a moment of simple joy looking at the baby in line behind me…..I am examining my relationships, friendships, and life goals with new eyes. I’m not embarrassed to say ‘No thank you,’ when offered a glass of wine, or a cookie (I discovered that when I gave up wine, I didn’t want any form of sugar!) And the world looks different, because I feel so differently about myself.

Changing, and sustaining our relationship to consumption is a life long journey for most of us. At the dawn of the holiday season, I invite you to embrace the real spirit of the holidays, by discovering what your soul truly desires.


Can you feel it? Take a moment. Wherever you are, breathe. If you can, step out your front door, or look out the window. A leaf falling off a tree? It is early days, the warmth of summer still teasing us with brilliant sun. But you can feel it, the change–autumn opening her palate of crimson, purple, and gold, calling us to enter a new world, not only the one of color and cool nights, but a new dimension deep within our souls.

Have you ever dreamed you are in a strange house? One you don’t recognize from waking life? There is a haunting quality to it, as you walk across an unfamiliar space in dream time; open a door that leads to a staircase, onto a roof garden, a tree with ripe golden fruit; beyond, you can smell the ocean, feel the mist of salt water on your nose.

Change is our only constant experience. Buddhists teach that everything in the universe is in a consistent state of transition: the sea, the sky, our bodies. Only the center of the soul, the subtle mind, is unchanging. Philosophers of ancient Greece wrote of the world in “flux”, and in China, Lao Tsu wrote of the Tao, “the way” of consciousness through never ending change.

It can be frightening. Many people say, “I hate change!”. Often this fear comes from childhood. If changes came hard and fast when you are little, it can culminate in a feeling that you have no control over your environment, your destiny, your body, your mind. And so often, we don’t. Working through this fear is a hallmark of psychological maturity, what Jung called “Individuation”.  Finding a place inside of us that sees the inevitable changes of life with open eyes, while holding a hand over our hearts, seat of the subtle mind, as eternal as a smooth stone at the bottom of a clear lake.

“How do I find this place?”– I hear this question often, and at times of my own fear and despair, I ask it myself. I wish it were easy. I wish it were the case that once you feel the reality of the eternal part of yourself, this connection remains firm and unchanging. But we are all humans, flawed and afraid. This connection must be renewed, again and again.

I look to luminaries like the Dali Lama or Pema Chodron. Surely they have it all figured out. But, in truth, both of them are quite open about the hard work of maintaining their connection to the divine. I once heard the Dali Lama laugh at his own tendency to inflate his ego. “Sometimes I wake up in the morning, and I think, ‘I am the Dali Lama!!’” He laughed and laughed, confessing with his great humor that we must work hard every day to step away from our silly selves and summon the humility to know the divine.  Pema Chodron has confessed that even after decades of meditating, she struggles to calm her mind and keep it from wandering off to the day’s grocery list.

We all need to find ever-changing, creative ways to connect with the eternal  inside of us, and in the world. Yesterday, I saw one huge maple leaf float off a tree. I touched the wrinkles around my eyes, reflected on yet another birthday coming up. I took a deep breath. We cannot change the progress of time, or the aging of the body. But we can look bravely at the world, feel compassion for those around us.

And listen to our dreams. Recently I had a series of many dreams of wandering in unfamiliar places, following people I don’t know, searching for something with no purpose. Then, one night, I dreamed of a woman who took me into a field beneath the full moon. She reached into the earth and held up a large slate-grey stone, as big as a coffee table. I woke in tears, feeling that she—my inner divine—was saying, “Stop all of this nonsense: see the substance of your very being.”

Dreams are a gift of the unbidden, but I believe they are nourished by our conscious efforts in waking life to connect with the subtle mind. There are many paths: meditation, song, prayer, dance, painting, long walks, a moment in line at the grocery store when we take a breath and bring our attention inward…..Our divine soul, is there, waiting patiently for us to tap Her on the shoulder and say, “I am here.”

REACHING OUT by Aeron Hansen

After my last blog, The Black Snow Queen, appeared, my daughter, Aeron Hansen, wrote  this beautiful essay. I want to share it with my readers:

Is every trip to the market the same? Sometimes it can feel like you’re just going through

the motions, since it’s a regular task, but each visit offers a slightly different experience,

and often times, a touch of humanity from someone who warms your heart, makes you

feel alive, connected and excited about shopping for produce. Each time I go to Top

Banana, a simple produce stand by my home, Dan, the produce guy, will say, “Hi Aeron,

how’s it going?” He will ask me if I want a sample of something juicy and ripe that’s

recently came in. The last time I was there, I sampled an unknown melon that looked like

a honeydew had made a melon baby with a cantaloupe.  Dan, who resembles a hobbit,

with his stocky stature, untamed curls, scruffy face and chubby cheeks, shoots me a

warm grin every time I see him. I always leave that place with a warm heart and a

bit of produce: a fun fact.

Today, about one week after the shootings of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota

and the five white policemen in Dallas, I set off for a 4-mile run, to the place where my

soon to be husband and I run most of the time – my daughter’s middle-school track and

field. I set out to clear my mind of the internal chatter – I’m worried about my daughter’s

trip to cater an event with strangers tomorrow, what if something horrible happens to her?

I should have done a background check, oh I’m sure they are kind people, but people do

messed up things, look at the recent events in our country and in countries targeted by

Isis. Will it ever end? We are also in the midst of the most twisted presidential election.

It’s hard to comprehend Trump becoming our next president. He will make things worse

by creating more fear and dividing people. There is too much negative press and my cell

phone is giving me brain damage.

Steadily, at about a 9.5 minute mile pace, I run the track while getting passed in spurts by

a strong, athletic African American man with bulging biceps and calves.  We work the

track in melodic intervals, me in a steady cadence and him passing me with speed of a

cheetah and grace of a gazelle, and then coming to a stop, which allows me to catch up

and then pass him. We didn’t make eye contact.

At one point, I watched him running from the other side of the track, and I thought to

myself, how are black people reacting to this movement of Black Lives Matter? Is it

demeaning in any way to have a national campaign support a group of people that belong

here? It’s the year 2016. We have made much progress over the years. Why do black

people need a rally cry that their lives matter?  We, as a nation, seem to have surpassed

racism and hate on a broad scale, but unfortunately people of different races, religions,

gender and sexual orientation are still mistreated. Our nation is made up of so many

races, which is what makes our nation diverse and rich. All lives matter. Yet with the

recent shootings and media coverage on racism, it seems like we have taken a few steps

back. I felt compassion, confusion and a deep sadness as well as hope, running around

the track with this man.

Soon I noticed a young, bright-eyed boy, who looked about 8 years old, walking up the

stairs to the track with his family. They looked like immigrants from Somalia, with their

dark skin, slender bodies. They wore nice clothes and the women wore hijabs. The boy

was curious about the running man and watched him with intrigue. I looked at the boy as

I rounded the track and we smiled into each other’s eyes. I felt so present and alive after

receiving the boy’s warm, innocent smile. I made another round and then noticed the

running man was speeding up and was about to pass me on my right. The boy slowly

approached the man on the side of he track,  raised his arm and opened his hand. The

man reached out and met his hand as he flew by. I wanted some of that too, so I shifted

my direction so I could get closer to the boy and I reached out and he gave me a

magnificent high-five.

My entire body started to fill up with joy, starting from my feet, then to my belly and up

to my heart, until a few tears rolled down my cheek. My earlier feelings of fear,

worry, and anxiety from all the mind chatter were gone and what had replaced it was

love, hope and a sense of what really matters – human connection. I turned the corner

and saw the running man stretching on the side of the track. He looked up at me and we

gave each other a smile. This boy brought us all together on the track that day. It was a

nice reminder of how human interaction can be so powerful and free from prejudices, hate

or biases. Just every day people reaching out.​


Dallas, Texas is my home town. Over fifty years ago my friend, Merry, and I invited our new friend, Tonya, to lunch. She was the golden throated, luminously beautiful star of our Dallas Theater Center Teen-Children’s Christmas Spectacular, The Snow Queen, the Hans Christian Anderson story that would be immortalized decades later in the movie, Frozen.

            We were all very proud of the fact that our Snow Queen was Black, a gentle, intelligent, joyful young woman, just turned 14, on the cusp of learning what the adult world was all about.

After rehearsal we were starving, eager to chow into a cheeseburger and fries. We entered a restaurant close to the theater and took a seat by the window, talking on and on, as teenage girls do, of the new steps in our dance (Merry and I were lowly ice sprites in the chorus), and the crush I had on our  choreographer. Merry and I were blown away with the beauty of Tonya’s solo, as the Snow Queen sang of her power to transform an icy world.

After what must have been over thirty minutes, we noticed that other people around us were already eating. A nervous, middle-aged waitress approached our table. She spoke only to Tonya, “This isn’t right but my manager says I can’t serve you.”

Blood surged to my face. Merry glared at the waitress. Tonya’s eyes found a crumpled napkin on the table.

“Let’s get out of here, “ I said, “And we are never coming back!”

Outside I continued to rage. Merry cried and spit on the ground. Tonya didn’t look at us. We walked back to the theater. She called her mother. We never went out to lunch again. A burgeoning friendship ended that day in shame, guilt, shock, confusion. At Christmas Tonya played the Snow Queen beautifully, but it seemed she no longer sang of a Queen’s power, but as a young woman Black woman, saddened by a vision of the world to come.

In the wake of the shootings this week in Minnesota, Louisiana, and Dallas, I grieve that humanity has so easily forgotten that we all evolved from the first Africans; that we all had black skin until some of us migrated north where the sun rose over fields of ice and snow. Only then did we become pale, ultimately choosing to marginalize, dominate, and fear our black ancestors.

As President Obama reminded us today in his speech from Poland, there has been progress. If my friends and I walked into that Dallas restaurant today, they would readily serve our Black Snow Queen. A Black woman may even own the place. But we still have a long way to go before the majority of us confront our own racism, and translate this into compassionate action. I like to think Tonya, the Black Snow Queen,  is calling on each of us to do whatever we can to move this consciousness, and this conversation forward. To transform those fateful words, “We can’t serve you,” into “We will serve, honor, and respect all human creatures who inhabit our beautiful Earth.”


“Alchemists always worked with particular embodied substances, waiting in slow motion for them to reveal their intelligence.  This highly refined embodiment called subtle body… exists between body and mind, partaking of both inspired metaphor and physical anatomy. From the point of view of the meeting between subjects, , such as Aboriginal and landscape, you and I—releases a mutual intelligence.”

—-Embodiment: Creative Imagination in Medicine, Art and Travel by Robert Bosnak

The first moment of contact is always a shock – be it 84 degrees, 74, or colder. “What is this?” cries the skin, “a substance so unlike our breathing air that is enveloping every inch of our largest organ—”

Legs thrum, arms reach forward, breath gasped to the right, to the left, demanding that this substance yield its warmth….. “

Ah, yes—” the skin whispers at last, luxuriating in the rough and tumble joys of our first mother: water.  And skin is elated, whatever the challenges of too many people in the lane, or rain storming down on the surface of the water.

Not everyone loves to swim, I realize that. For others, movement practices  on dry land can often provide the doorway to transcendent experiences of reality. For me the act of submerging in water is so delightfully otherworldly.  In dance and mountain climbing we are still surrounded by air. Our skin sweats and breathes in an ordinary reality.  For me, there is something about the sensual relationship between skin and water that moves me into a dimension that Carl Jung called the subtle body:  the soul in matter/ matter within the soul.

For corroboration, I offer what happens to my mind when I am swimming. In the beginning, I go back and forth, the way many of us do in the early moments of meditation: what am I going to get for lunch? Did I take out the trash? When should I pay off the house?…..But, with persistence, and a scan at the environment around me: my husband swimming beside me entirely underwater, his head scraping the bottom of the pool; the young woman on the other side flipping through the water like a dolphin fleeing a shark; the sunlight riding the currents down into the azure depths, I am in a new world. My mind stops making lists. I notice my own movement, the feeling of rolling, gliding, the illusive tickle of water against my fingertips.

A place opens in my mind of memory, imagination, and that moment in dreaming where you find yourself made of a whole new cloth. This state of being is almost impossible to describe without sounding like a fairy tale author. I have the hunch that this felt state of “other world-ness” is what Jung means by subtle body. It comes in dreams, and at moments in waking life we often call “sacred”, or for me, under water. It doesn’t happen every time, and not through any will or method or even conscious intention, but comes, I suspect, with a simple willingness to observe states of mind and body without judgment. Then it is possible to literally swim in this place between waking and dreaming, body and soul, heaven and earth, while being completely grounded in the smell of the chlorine, the laughter of kids by the side of the pool: mind and body unified, whole, here.

Happy Threshold of Summer!


“I’d like to see the tiger before—“

His voice trailed off.

We sat in the zoo café, staring at the figure before us: large eyes, thinning cheekbones, pale muslin hat with long flaps like the blinders on a warhorse.

No one finished his sentence. He could have meant “before I go.” We all heard, “before I die.”

I jumped up, racing blindly out into the thick stream of bodies at the San Diego Zoo, searching for a golf cart-like vehicle I had seen carrying VIP’s around the park. I found one. “Someone needs to see the tiger and he can’t walk all the way up there. Can you take us? I’ll pay you anything.”

“Do you have a reservation?”


“We’re not supposed to.”

“He has cancer….”

The driver’s face showed no emotion. “Just a minute”. She called on her walkie-talkie. Could my tearful request be so common that it touched nothing within her?

“Ok,” she said into the phone with no expression. To me she said, “Hurry up. I don’t have much time.”

“Neither does he,” I said, my voice cracking.

I ran back to the café, “Bring your coffee, everybody. We have a ride to the tiger!” David moved slower than the rest of us, the flaps on his hat swaying in the warm breeze. He climbed into the back of the vehicle, his long legs folding like a praying mantis.

Our driver didn’t look at him, but she drove with a sense of a woman on a mission. No one spoke as we flew down twisting back alleyways closed to the public. There was something quite magical about it that I knew was not lost on David. We  got to see the zoo backstage: a baby giraffe on wobbly legs still hiding in the tall  barn, odd goat like creatures getting a pedicure, the baby panda on her way to a nap, and, as we rounded the bend, the back entrance to the Bengal Tiger Exhibit.

She was larger than any of us imagined, a magnificent head, and a body like a mountain range at sunset. She rested on a ledge in the shade, looking right at us as if she had been waiting all day for David.

He got out slowly, camera tucked in his hand, his eyes misting as he walked toward her.

Our stoic driver slid her hand off the steering wheel, and we all watched David’s languid stride until he stood at the fence, looking in; the tiger looking out.

A stillness settled in the air.

I wanted to call out to David, “Don’t move!” Once he lifted his camera, he would take pictures; the tiger would move off the ledge. David would go home to chemo and all that lay beyond.

Don’t move. Stay there, looking at the tiger, the tiger looking at you….

The late afternoon light shifted, the tiger’s face illuminated, her golden eyes unblinking.  Her spine lengthened as if to say to David, “Here I am, in all my magnificence: a gift to you.”

David’s body suddenly became animated with the energy of his youth, the camera an extension of the wild creative spirit that he shared with this animal.

As if she knew all of this, the tiger did not jump off the ledge. Perhaps she was a matriarch, in the later stages of her life. Perhaps she felt a kinship with this man in the funny hat, whose life was also waning.  She stayed on the ledge, her head shifting slightly as David knelt and leaned sideways and forward – stopping short of standing on his head – to get just the right angle.

I never saw his pictures. Months passed, and it has been two years now since he has been gone. I know the photos are safely in his digital library, but no one can quite look at them. Not yet. And how we grieve, for when love is so fundamental, its absence is simply not to be believed.

I wonder if the Bengal tiger is still on her ledge, her golden eyes shifting in the late afternoon sun, searching, as we all are, for David to walk around the corner, lift his camera, and capture us all.


The title is poetic. This first caught my eye. Then I read what it is about: the memoir of a brilliant young neurosurgeon dying of stage IV lung cancer. ..When breathe becomes air….the moment when he made the transition from a breathing human being to living in the everywhere, the oneness of existence some call Eternity.

How could I resist?

Never mind that I lost my soul mate, my mentor, my cousin, David, to the same disease two years ago next month. Perhaps this is the book David would have written had he been a writer. He was a therapist, and as Paul Kalanithi continued to do brain surgery up until a few months before he died, my cousin chose to spend his last months with family, friends, and his patients.

Paul Kalanithi opens a world for us that is far more about living than dying. A literature major and lover of books from childhood, he had always wanted to write. He mapped out the course of his life in neurosurgery and the vast and dynamic horizon of neuroscience. In one section he details doing an operation with tiny electrodes that target an area unreachable by surgery. The patient is wide awake, and suddenly reports, “I feel sad. Crushingly, terribly sad—“ Paul adjusts the electrode almost imperceptibly. After a few minutes, the patient sighs, “I’m myself again.”  Paul reflects that it is of little use to cure the cancer if his patient lives with a terrible sadness. And so opens the possibilities for the future of treatment for so many brain disorders, from schizophrenia to Huntington’s.

Paul had a beautiful and brilliant wife, and had every reason to chart his life in decades: twenty years in neuroscience, the last ten as a writer.

With the diagnosis all of this shifted. Alongside the precious time with his patients in the operating room, he took up the pen – or these days, the laptop—as his way of finding meaning in the morass of the tragedy unfolding inside his body.

What is it about words that opens doors into the soul? I could ask that about any art form. It requires a peeling away of the layers of protection we erect in ordinary life. The role of “Doctor Kalanithi” gave way to a man who was entirely vulnerable, one foot in this world, the other in a much larger reality.

From this place as half man. half eternity, he writes not only the story of the course of his illness, but opens the book with Part One: “In Perfect Health I Begin”. We become a fly on the wall in his loving childhood family, his decision to focus as much on science as literature. The grueling hours of medical residency in brain surgery. The mistakes made. The evolution of his soul and consciousness in relation to the realities of medical practice.

His guiding principle? Meaning. Paul was ignited with the vision that  penetrating the physical properties of the brain can tell us even more about the mind and the soul and the meaning of life than the most enduring works of classical literature.  His quest – right to the end – was to find the connections through the healing pathways of brain circuitry that link us to purpose, to the core of existence, to each other.

His revelations, the mere persistence of his vision, his strong relationships with colleagues, patients, and his beloved wife, propel us through the story.  A portrait emerges of a man whose allegiance to meaning is so deeply embedded in his character, he is astonished to learn that after medical school most doctors choose “light” professions such as radiology, or dermatology. For Paul it had to a journey of the soul that took him into moments of life and death with patients and their families, finding in these moments, the most extraordinary and meaningful experience of life possible.

I leave you with Paul’s own words:

“Being with patients in these moments certainly had its emotional cost, but is also had its rewards. I don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life—and not merely life but another’s identity, it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul –was obvious in its sacredness.”



Kalanithi, Paul ( 2015) When Breath Become Air Random House. New York.