Before we are born, everything is open
In the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed
within us. And when we die, everything is open again.
Open closed open. That’s all we are.
—Yehuda Amichai1924 – 2000
“An urgent sense of the possible contributed to my pursuit of psychoanalytic training over a decade ago, back when CO2 levels were still below 400 ppm. At the time, my analyst and my own analysis were introducing me to an unanticipated world of depth, beauty, and tolerable terror from which I rarely wanted to surface.” So begins Susan Kassouf’s essay, “A New Thing Under the Sun.” Kassouf quickly recognized that her new profession did not lend itself to thinking about the “more than human” environment, let alone climate catastrophe. “There was no useful language to describe what I was sensing,” she writes, so she creates the word she needs. Elaine Zickler understands Kassouf’s drive to find the right words. “We grasp for available language to explain what we see and what we do: the language of biology, the language of neurology and brain science, the language of quantum physics, even, as with Lacan, the language of linguistics.” Her essay, “Psychoanalysis in a Lyric Mode,” leans on the genius of Virginia Woolf to show how language can push us to the borders of our being. Zickler has come to see psychoanalysis as “an answering art…(it) is the responsiveness of the analyst to the stranger who speaks to us from her strangeness; it is the response that reveals our own strangeness as well.”
Bill Cornell gets the transformative power of words. “I found myself thinking,” he recounts in “Words, Voice, Body,” “about how often I see, I feel, how my voice and words land in the bodies of my clients, how often their words and voices land in mine, and of how the unspoken language of our bodies informs and enlivens our words. Spoken words that land in the body of another or written words that can be heard in the voice of the author capture the fundamental physicality of language, the embodiment of speaking.” In the late ’60s, as a student at Reed College, Cornell heard Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and other Beat poets give readings. Their photographs hang in his office today reminding him of what it means “to listen, to write, to speak, and to stand outside the borders of the normative.”
Standing well outside the “borders of normative,” Karim Dajani stumbled, as Kassouf did, into a lacuna of existential significance in the course of his psychoanalytic training. While Kassouf stretches the boundaries of our psychoanalytic understanding to the “more than human,” Dajani’s “From Beirut to San Francisco: A Psychoanalytic Journey” pushes psychoanalysis to take into better account that which is breathtakingly human. “Culture is like the air we breathe; it animates our bodies,” he writes. “Culture or the collective, paradoxically, gives us the necessary tools to realize our individuality. If the air we breathe is full of toxins—oppression and marginalization—then the self we make is full of those toxins as well.” Like Kassouf, Dajani wants us to recognize anew the levels of connection we share with our environment. “We have been slow to analyze this dimension of our being as the societies we live in have also been slow to recognize the way systemic racism is baked into the air we breathe. But is recognizing and analyzing enough? Systemic racism is a virus and its not-yet-discovered vaccine should first be given to the most fortunate. But if offered, would we take it? Or would we be too afraid of what it might do to us?” This is the question Singer poses near the end of his striking memoir essay “Bear with Me.” This is the question that demands our attention.
Santiago Delboy and Jo Wright’s essays also describe the infiltrating power of culture. “Three hundred years of colonialism shaped ways of being and relating that remained deeply rooted in a split social psyche, even after the Spaniards were long gone,” writes Delboy. In his essay, “Of Fruit and COVID,” he has returned home after many years to care for his mother, who is ill with COVID. “Lima is always strange. It is at the same time a place I no longer recognize and one that I recognize too well, a city where I don’t fully belong, yet one that belongs to me in visceral ways. The air breathes differently as soon as I leave the airport, when I am hit by Lima’s penetrating humidity and feel surrounded by familiar languages, meanings, and cadences. Something shifts inside of me…as I relate to this simultaneously new and old world…Why am I just standing here? Why do I feel so lost? Why can’t I think?”
Jo Wright’s thinking is rekindled by the racial reawakening of America. In “Assisted Passage,” she recalls an idyllic childhood on the edge of the Australian outback: “[T]he musical rustling of wind in the ghost gums…learning to swim in the turquoise sea, family picnics among carpets of wildflowers when the winter rains and spring sunshine caused the desert hinterland to bloom.” But there are other memories “of shirtless, shoeless Indigenous men clustered around the back doors of the town’s pubs in the afternoon; the faces and names…of two Indigenous Australian girls in [her] primary school class, their absence after sixth grade.” Like Delboy, Wright’s reverie becomes momentarily confused—what had stopped her from seeing this then? But if she had, she writes, “If I had wondered, who would I have asked?…Would I have asked my parents, who, as they became acculturated to the rough Australian country-town life, seemed to adopt the views of the adults who gathered around the kegs in the backyard barbecues?”
If to be human, as Anton Hart says in “Radical Openness Part 2,” “means [to be] largely unconscious of one’s thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and tendencies,” then what can we do? How can we “detoxify ourselves and our world” from the things we are largely unaware of? Hart suggests we must “proceed in dialogue with perpetual humility and uncertainty.” Along with humility and uncertainty, the authors in ROOM 6.21 are getting in close to get clarity. It is hard to find a clearer illustration of radical openness in the clinic than Mendes’s description of her work with an anti-Semitic patient in “Moving Boundaries.” “Slipping out of my own boundaries felt expansive, but also somewhat disloyal and even transgressive, because while it released me temporarily from my own psychic confines, it also invited an abandonment of an essential identification and allegiance and a crossing over into another subjective experience that was inimical, at least in part, to them.” Then, taking a step back to think about how this permeable membrane has come to be, she writes, “We all contain multitudes and begin life with a profusion of possibilities for identification that inevitably succumb to constriction and suppression in the process of development and socialization.”
“White Mother/Black Sons” illustrates this developmental insight writ large and playing out in heartbreaking relief. Jane Lazarre writes, “What was this whiteness that threatened to separate me from my own child? How often had I failed to see it lurking, hunkering down, encircling me in some irresistible fog? I wanted words that might be helpful to him, offer some carefully designed, unspontaneous permission for him to discover his own road, even if that meant leaving me behind. At the same time, I wanted to cry out, don’t leave me, as he had cried out to me when I walked out of day-care centers, out of his first classroom in public school. And always this double truth, as unresolvable as in any other passion, the paradox: she is me/not me; he is mine/not mine.” Lazarre’s anguish is as big as our country. It is the anguish that brings us to our knees.
“Crossing over to another’s subjective experience” is one thing. Allowing one’s own subjective experience to be objectively visible is quite another. Umi Chong describes what we might imagine Lazarre’s Black children have felt. “It is an agonizing and grueling process to become visible because it entails decentering my analyst’s whiteness,” Chong writes in her essay “Remaining to be Seen.” “Decentering” herself and being seen then extends her work with her white patients. “How do I convey that it seems without my body and phenotype in plain sight, in only hearing my voice, my Asian-ness seems to disappear? …Vulnerability in this racial context is a paradox—it is because of this uncertainty that it is safer and necessary to be visible, to emotionally show myself, and to want to be fully seen and heard. That is—to be fully represented in the particular ways my humanness is racialized as an Asian American—if not only for the opportunity to relinquish these ghosts from my own mind, let alone for my generation.”
“There’s a way in which everything feels more personal,” writes Celeste Kelly in their essay “Reframed.” “More human-to-human than it ever has (at least for me, in my short time practicing). We are sitting in the same mud, swimming in the same water, trying to stay afloat and acclimate, together.” Is it the same mud? Well, yes and no. Kelly, a queer newly minted psychotherapist, knew that their ambivalence to exhibit their pronouns on the Zoom screen came, in their words, “not only from the bumps along the road of my own identity development, but from a conflict within our field as a whole…These pronouns are intentional and important…How badly I want, have always wanted, to be fully seen in that regard, and how often I have defensively moved away. A part of me holds great shame about that, and it’s hard to write. As much as I’ve wanted to be ‘out and proud,’ more of my life has looked like ‘out and ambivalent.’”
Whether being chased by a literal bear, seeing pronouns on a Zoom screen, visiting a sick mother in Peru, or imagining the world of her Black child, each author in ROOM 6.21 gestures toward radical openness. One by one, they bring us up close to their particular experiences of disillusionment, confusion, heartbreak, shame, fear, and guilt. None of them have abandoned hope. And Bill Cornell sums up why. “In writing, in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy at its best, our words convey a voice—a deeply personal voice, a voice that both listens and speaks from one’s own body to the body of another, to land in the body of another, to take residence, to come more alive, to awaken, to challenge, to cherish one another.” ROOM 6.21 is opening up. ■
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