‘Neath the Blue-Black Sky

I take the dog out for his bedtime walk and pause in the driveway to look at the blue-black sky. It is not as spectacular a night sky as I would like – there are too many city lights for that – but there are enough stars scattered across the heavens to evoke memories of the best night skies I’ve ever seen. Many of those I took in with a particular friend.

I’ve just received hard news about his wife, whom I am fortunate to also call my friend of many years. She is among the bravest and most thoughtful people I have ever known, and I think as I look at that blue-black sky how much she would have loved to share with us some of those wonderful stargazing nights. She is a great lover of beauty, and those nights were spent in some of the most beautiful places anyone could ever visit.

I walk the dog around the block, and he thrusts his head into the crumbling snow, sniffing for whatever he might find there. Looking up and down the street, I see no one at all. There are only the stars in the blue-black sky, my jolly dog, and me. No animal skitters, no insect hums, yet the weather is warming, and those sounds and many more are just around the seasonal corner. Spring, the season of new life and rebirth, is nearly upon us – a poignant counterpoint to loss.

I stand with the dog on a corner lit by a bright street lamp that steals from the sky all subtlety and leaves only blackness. I think about my friend’s illness and am struck by conflicting instincts. Part of me feels urged to reevaluate my life, because my friend’s illness has reminded me that life is unpredictable and short, perhaps even shorter than you imagine it will be. Questions fly through my mind: am I doing what I want to be doing? Am I living the life I want to live? Are there changes I should make? Yet there is another part of me that says that nothing I do in my privileged life is as hard as what my friend is doing now and has done over the past two years, so I have no right to complain, no right to reevaluate. It’s time to buckle down, suck it up, or whatever motivating-yet-limiting phrase you’d like to apply. I mull over this conflict between the urge for change and the demand for acceptance, and how these opposing instincts are triggered so powerfully by the hard news of how my friend’s illness has progressed.

Stepping out from the glow of the street lamp, I look up again. There is something about the night sky that comforts me. In its vastness is inherent possibility. The vast and unknown can make us feel small and afraid, or they can fill us with a sense that anything can happen. I suppose “anything” includes the bad, but it also includes the wondrous. Standing there, I think of both for a few minutes. Then the dog and I head home.

I spend the night hovering between sleep and wakefulness, unable to tell where one ends and the other begins. I dream of my friends – fragmentary, photographic dreams, vivid and confused.

The next morning dawns with a stripe of salmon pink on the horizon. The stripe is topped with thin, elongated clouds the color of a bruise. Above the clouds is a band of brilliant light blue, which shades into a high sea of dark blue-grey. Soon, the clouds blush pink, and as the sun breaks the horizon line, the eastern sky glows golden, but only for a short time.

When I Heard “Divorce”

Some things can’t be fixed. Some never needed fixing.

One evening, when I was ten years-old, my mother walked into our cozy den, where I was watching television. She looked calm, and her voice was even, but when she asked me to come into my parents’ room, I could tell that something was wrong. It wasn’t that she never asked me to come into their room. It was simply that my radar for emotion, the same ultra-sensitive radar that most kids have, was pinging like crazy. I slowly got to my feet and followed her to the back of the house. We passed through the dining room and went down the short hallway to the two bedrooms. My brother and I shared the cheerful one straight ahead, the one with bunk beds and model airplanes and Legos and scores of children’s books. My parents’ room was on the right. As I walked to it, I kept my eyes on the floor.

When we entered the room, my dad and my three-year-old brother were sitting on the bed. My mom joined them, but I hovered near the door, reluctant. “Come sit,” my mom said, and I did. “Dad and I have something we want to talk to you about.”

I don’t remember exactly what my parents said next, but it was about troubles in their relationship. They emphasized that they loved my brother and me very much and always would, and that none of what was happening between them was our fault. There was talk of “grown-up problems,” but all I could think was, “Now we kids will have problems, too.” I recall listening to each of them saying the things that parents are supposed to say at times like these. They made it sound so simple, but my life was getting more complicated with every word they said. The bottom line was that they were getting divorced.

When they were finished, I looked at each of them, then at my brother. He was such a serious kid, somber and seemingly older than his years, and his little brow was furrowed under his crazy curls. I wanted so badly to protect him from what was happening.

“OK,” I said to my parents as matter-of-factly as I could, “now that we know what the problem is, let’s fix it.” My budding analytical mind combined with my childhood optimism: where there was a problem, there must be a solution, just as surely as “what went up must come down.”

My mom tilted her head to one side and looked at me with eyes filled with love and sadness. She said something like, “There’s no way to fix this.”

My brother started to cry. I followed. It felt like pieces of me were flying off and spinning away, and I couldn’t catch them fast enough.

At the time, I was in a private school in Los Angeles. Though my parents didn’t talk to me much about it, I had the impression that they could barely afford to send me there and perhaps only did so with help from my grandparents. At my school, the boys wore navy corduroy pants and white or sky blue polo shirts with the school name emblazoned in an arc over the left breast, and the girls wore light blue or navy jumper dresses with button-down, white blouses. The headmaster was a former US Navy man who whistled like a boatswain over the intercom to get our attention. Every morning, after his ear-splitting, three-tone squeal and gruff announcements, the whole school marched out onto the blacktop playground in lines to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. There was a monied, mainstream feel about the place. Intact, rich, Protestant families were the norm, and I was a Jewish kid with divorcing parents. Looking back now, I am aware that there were other kids who fell outside the usual student profile, too, but we were the exceptions that proved the rule.

Like a chameleon, I worked to fit in, generally well-liked, involved in student council, a reporter and then editor-in-chief of the school paper. While all of these efforts served as cover, they actually accentuated my feeling of “otherness.” I had become part of the school establishment in a place that felt foreign to me, part of a club I was pretty sure I didn’t really want to join, even if part of me desperately wanted to be a member. I thought that any day, my peers would realize that I’m not really one of them and send me packing. Now, with the news that my parents were getting divorced, the sense of difference was joined by shame. There was no one at school that I was willing to talk to about what was going on at home. The day after my parents told me they were splitting up, I remember sitting in Miss Cooley’s fifth grade class and feeling numb and distant. With my school friends, I kept quiet about my family.

Holding in my feelings, I started to experience anxiety, and I developed an angry edge. By all accounts, I had been a very mellow, sweet kid. My anxiety and anger were new, and I neither understood nor knew how to handle them. And while I remained a “good boy,” not getting into trouble or misbehaving, my insides squirmed and I started to worry about things. Most of all, I worried about my brother. I stepped into more of a parenting role, and I felt like he needed me to take care of him and that something might happen to him if I didn’t.

It was a hard time, but it also spurred growth in me and in my family. My mother gained strength and independence. She started to search for a job, figuring out what she wanted to do, what would work for her and for us. She went on interviews, and she got some offers. Her confidence grew, and after she worked at a job for awhile and decided it wasn’t for her, she got another, and then another, as she found her way. Her newfound strength made her a better mother to us, more able to give us guidance and support.

My family’s challenges made it necessary for me to do more around the house. I learned how to do laundry, ironing, housecleaning, and cooking and became independent at doing all of them. Perhaps this sounds minor, but these are wonderfully practical skills, and I like being able to do them proficiently without thinking much about it.

Eventually, I also learned how to maintain a home. A couple of years after the divorce, my mom met the man who would become my stepfather. I hadn’t been able to fix what was going on in my house when my parents split up, but my stepdad actually could fix the house itself. He was a patient, inviting, and straightforward teacher, helping me to develop a handiness that I probably would not have gained otherwise. Just as important, he was also my first guitar teacher, guiding my initial, tentative steps into making music on six strings.

There was a lot that was hard. Blending families as each of my parents remarried, seeing my dad on a schedule, and struggling with a sense of shame and increasing anxiety were all difficult. Yet I cannot imagine my life any different, and I am grateful for what I gained. My mother met her challenges head on and became a stronger, more complete and independent person and parent. I learned how to take care of a household. My stepfather has been a powerful influence on me, as instrumental as anyone has been in building my confidence, because he saw me as fundamentally capable and took the time to teach me everything from home maintenance to folk, rock, and blues tunes on the guitar.

The night that I heard “divorce,” my first reaction was to try to figure out how to fix the situation. But now, if I could talk to my ten-year-old self that night sitting on my parents’ bed, as he felt overwhelmed by the news and his own sense of responsibility, I would tell him not just that he can’t fix it, but that he doesn’t need to. It never needed fixing at all. As he dealt with sadness and shame and anger and anxiety, I’d want him to know that the experience would be part of what would make him a good husband, father, friend, and teacher. I’m glad I know that now. I wish I knew it then.

A bunch of doctors: Just what the doctor ordered

Sometimes, as the Rolling Stones sang, you get what you need. And sometimes it is only when you get what you need that you realize just how badly you needed it.

This past weekend, most of my clinical psychology classmates – the entering Ph.D. class of 1994 at the University of Michigan – descended on Ann Arbor for a reunion. The only thing that would have made the weekend better was if the three who were missing had been there.

I have been blessed with a lot of laughter in my life, but seldom have I laughed so much as I did this weekend. At one point, when I was in my kitchen and everyone else was on the back deck, I just paused and listened to the laughter pouring through the open window. I felt such joy and satisfaction listening to that.

The night before all were to arrive, I was a bit worried. We had last been all together so long ago, I wondered if the chemistry wouldn’t be there. Would there be long, uncomfortable silences? Would we, a group that had been so close-knit in graduate school, find that we had drifted apart? It took no time after everyone’s arrival to realize that all was well. I mentioned to one of my classmates that I had had these concerns. He turned to me and said in his typically thoughtful, wise way, “Josh, how could it be any other way for a group of people who care so much about each other?” Notice that he said “care,” not “cared.”

These were my people, my dear friends, people I had spent a lot of wonderful and hard times with. We had gone through something intense and challenging together, and we had shared joy and sadness, devastating tragedy, complete triumphs, and a hell of a lot of laughter. We had picked each other up, dusted each other off, cheered each other on, challenged each other to feel and think more deeply, cried on each other’s shoulders, gotten each other out of scrapes, and supported each other through crises. We learned to be professional listeners together, and we listened a lot to each other. It is a remarkably healing and satisfying thing to be heard and feel known.

This weekend served as yet another recent reminder that I, once a practicing psychologist and now a lawyer, prefer the company of psychologists to that of lawyers. That’s not to say that all lawyers are bad company or that all psychologists are good. But as a general matter, there is a meanness that lurks just below the surface at best in law and a kindness that is readily apparent in psychology. Or perhaps I should be more direct: as a general matter, there is a meanness that comes all too easily to many lawyers and a kindness that is wonderfully accessible to psychologists. Even if you go into law to help people, sometimes the way that you have to help them is by being brutal and ruthless. I know too many people who describe that as “fun.” I’m fed up with them.

I am grateful to my psychology classmates for making the journey to Ann Arbor for our reunion. Those doctors were just what the doctor ordered.