‘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.

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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.