Sunday, June 23, 2013

Good Night Grace

In my dream, John Mack,  my former psychoanalyst , was talking about grace. I was in his living room, which was also somehow Aunt Sophie's living room, and he was reading from a piece of looseleaf notebookpaper. 

There was handwritten text on the paper, a discourse on grace, and he said to me that grace was something conferred from above. I was puzzled, as he had never before used specifically Christian language.

In my dream, I challenged him: the term grace, I said, was an outward movement of the human intelligence, a reaction to felicity, the naming of an unmerited beneficence, an acknowledgement of dependency, the object of thanksgiving.

He chided me gently. I was not to quibble or split hairs. The two motifs were not mutually exclusive.

I woke with the odd sense of peace that only a dream visitation from the dead can confer.

The last time I saw John Mack was in 1993. I'd been in analysis with him in the 1970's and 80's, and it was absolutely life-changing and life-saving.

In 1992 I was in my early forties and had returned to residency to complete my training and obtain board certification. It was an exceedingly awful 2 years, and my journal from that time eloquently and histrionically documents the long, miserable ordeal.

I vacillated between feeling like Persephone returned to Hell and Jonah in the belly of the whale, and I finally set up some sessions with Dr Mack who was in the Department of Psychiatry of the hospital where I was undergoing my ordeal.

He was patient, and generous (never charged me for the sessions) and we talked at length about the experience of being misfit, and of my Bartleby-like affinity for quitting.   Dr Mack was already at the center of some controversy regarding his interest in the experiences of people who had reported being abducted by aliens -- research that would lead him into increasingly spiritual realms of speculation, and, in 1994, into being the subject of an academic inquiry by Harvard Medical School led by the former NEJM editor, Arnold Relman. Dr Mack (and academic freedom) was ultimately vindicated, but not without what must have been a horrible ordeal. Ten years later he was killed by a drunk driver.

And now, another decade downstream, he has returned to me to discourse on grace.

When I finally finished those awful two years I had a decision to make: what sort of position would I seek in the field about which I had (to be generous) some ambivalence ?

There was, of course, the primary care option -- plunge into the watery abyss and invite the waters to close over my head. Serendipitously, a walk-in position in a hospital based internal medicine practice came to my attention. So what would it be ? Embrace fully the thing I'd walked through fire to attain, or engage something less intense, less intimate -- caring for other doctors' patients. One would drown me. The other might leave me space for my other misfit passions and reticences.


It was an excruciating decision. So I went to the movies.

I saw the amazing 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould and suddenly it became clear: the brilliant, reclusive, misfit pianist retired from live performance (which he once likened to being a tightrope performer whose audience is rooting for a fall)  at the height of his career to work solely in the recording studio. I (not brilliant, but certainly reclusive and misfit) would do walk-in.

And so I did until last November when the hospital ER took over my gig and expanded it to obtain "market share" in the area's increasingly competitive urgent care clinic wars. I had the option to be "leased" to the ER by my medical group -- which I declined.  Instead I would be a "covering MD" in my group, kind of a floating gig, which (I was assured) would be little different from what I'd been doing.

Which brings me to this summer and my dream. In the past 6 months my job  has been veering more and more toward primary care. This summer I'm helping cover my colleague's 3 month sabbatical -- and, for the past few months, I have been in an attenuated version of the dismay of 1992-1994.  

So enter Dr Mack, through the nocturnal passageways haunted by both Freud and limpid-eyed extraterrestrials, to remind me of grace. The unmerited gift of being-itself. The gift of my own life of relative opulence, health and privilege that allows me to call being-itself a gift and not a curse.

To remind me of the inextricable unity of self and world, of the both-and-ness of things, of the mysteriousness and elusiveness and unfathomability of phenomenal existence.

Of the grace of connection, the grace of being misfit, the grace of being called to endure tasks that seem impossible but that prove not to be.

Of the grace of the unmerited positive regard of Dr Mack's faithful treatment in which even I, weed that I am, was able to flourish -- at least for seasons.

For isn't that the definition of a weed, these beings for whom I feel such an affinity, something that is misfit for where it finds itself ? In a meadow a dandelion is king, a lion's tooth. On suburban grass it is villain, a piss-the-bed in the malevolent sights of Chem-Lawn.

Oh, to explore the notion of weeds with my vanished psychoanalyst -- this most late and queer erotic cathexis of mine.

But he inhabits shadow realms now, from which coded messages about the reciprocity of grace can flow only under cover of darkness and deep sleep.

But, in daylight, there is only grief and longing. The dream presence may leave a lingering peace, but then the dismal chaos of life floods in and over, leaving one floundering in a choppy ocean whose mythic buoys are few and far between --

-- and I am swimming like mad toward the sound of a distant,  wave-rung bell.


forsythia said...

Such a gift.

christopher said...

You with your weeds remind me of my former primary care guy who hangs his fully competent field and stream illustrations on his office walls and who began to work part time because his hand drawn illustrations landed him gigs in field and stream magazines.

The upside down beetle gave me a catch in my breath.

Naris said...

Thank you. Thought provoking words and wonderful pictures.

Vincent said...

Thanks for this post, most eloquent in its discussion of grace and in the fragment of your Pilgrim's Progress through life.

We last shared some words on grace when you mentioned a film called the The Tree of Life which I then watched and wrote a post about, on 17th March last year.

I agree with your dream-psychoanalyst that the two aspects of grace are not mutually exclusive, to the point where I could happily dispense altogether with the notion of God, as a presence which needs to be named, but for Grace, which you have so well defined "as an outward movement of the human intelligence, a reaction to felicity, the naming of an unmerited beneficence, an acknowledgement of dependency, the object of thanksgiving."

Grace in short is a gift, and so I posit a Giver. In fancy I imagine that the notion of God long before my time arose in exactly this way. Such a fancy is borne out by the book of Genesis, which also takes on the task of explaining a lot of other things along the way; not forgetting that the book of Genesis is also a fancy.

This is my all-time favourite of your posts, I think.

andy said...

It's been a long time since I last dropped by; I'm glad I did tonight. Hard to say why, exactly, except that I'm left with something akin to that odd sense of peace. Thanks.

Beth said...

Ah, a dream about grace which is itself an example of it!

Last night's reflection for my meditation group was on this text: "You cannot wait for things to be totally perfect to fall in love with them or you will never love anything." Far easier to do with the weeds of the field than with our fellow humans, especially in churches! Anyway, many graces to you, and thank for this post.