28 Mar … You Must Give Up the Hope for a Better Past (IRVIN D. YALOM) | Part B’
“Well, here are the first lines of a poem I don’t recall at all. It’s dated 1980.”
To want words
Is not hunger
A lack of mountains
Eating the evening up
Like a train
Roaming those thought tracks
My feet made to scale
Like those of fowl that
Pace the low tide shore
Till water or words rise
To level all sign
Of unusual bird
Or strange mind
Tears came to my eyes. I found it hard to find words. “It’s a stunning poem, Sally. Stunning. I love it, especially those last two magnificent lines.”
Sally took a handful of tissues, lowered her head, and wept for a few minutes. Then, dabbing her eyes with a tissue, she peeked up at me. “Thank you. You can’t imagine how much that means.” She spent the rest of the session sifting through the ancient pages of her life, occasionally reading passages aloud, and then, as the end of our time approached, sat back in her chair and took two deep breaths.
“Still here in the present with me?” I asked.
“Still rooted in 2012. I’m so glad you’re here. Thank you. I couldn’t have opened this without you.”
I glanced at the clock. We had run past the hour. Sometimes patients catch that glance and conclude that I’m impatient for the hour to end. But often, like today, it was just the opposite. I was hoping we had more time to pursue the path we were treading.
“We’re going to have to stop now, but first we should plan how to proceed. For sure I think we should meet tomorrow or the next day.”
Sally nodded assent.
“And do you feel comfortable looking through your writing at home? Or would you prefer to leave the box here with me, and we’ll continue looking together next time.”
As she thought about my question, I added, “I promise not to snoop.”
Sally elected to take the box home and to meet again two days later. After she left, I thought about what a privileged profession I had. What an honor to share such pivotal and precious moments! And listening to her read her poetry was such a treat. I’m tone deaf and never appreciate concerts or opera but have always delighted in the spoken word—theater and, above all, poetry readings. And here, today, I am being paid to be present at this extraordinary drama and to listen to exquisite lines of poetry. I felt guilty at enjoying my hour with Sally so much. Of course, I knew it was problematic—without doubt transference was haunting this session, and the hovering image of her father vastly increased the complexities of her sharing her work with me. And there was also the issue of how I, a professional writer, might respond to her artistry. Some therapists decline to read a patient’s writing for fear of damaging the relationship. They worry about what they would say if they disliked or couldn’t comprehend the writing. I’ve never fretted over that. I have too much respect for anyone seeking to cultivate creativity. If the writing is not to my liking, I can always find some lines that move me and point those out to the writer. That’s always welcome and often helps writers to raise their work. In this instance, no problem whatsoever arose, since Sally was a gifted writer and all I had to do was tell the truth.
For many weeks she read through her work and painstakingly entered everything, every word, into her computer. The task proved to be a treasure trove for the work of therapy, in that she arrived at each session brimming with vivid recollections about her relationships with her parents, siblings, friends, and past lovers. In her early twenties a series of poems, each sounding more pained and more desperate, presaged the collapse of her first marriage. One day she appeared at my office holding a bundle of sixty-six love poems written to Austin, a demon lover with whom she had had a brief passionate affair in her youth. The poems sang of soaring, unending love, but all too soon her relationship with Austin peaked and then ended badly with a foul aftertaste. She had misjudged him and ended up feeling exploited and traumatized. Hence, when she discovered those poems, her first impulse was disgust, and she considered burning them but desisted until she spoke to me. I was horrified at the thought. I never burn anything and have a large folder entitled “Cuts,” holding all the material cut from my novels and stories. I told all of this to Sally in my appeal to save the poems from the fire. I stalled for time by asking Sally to read aloud some of the poems about Austin. With quavering voice she read a few passages.
“I think they’re lovely,” I said.
She began to weep. “But they’re fraudulent. And I’m fraudulent too. The few months during which I wrote these was the most glorious time of my life—and yet these poems are rooted in a dung heap.” We spent the last fifteen minutes of the session discussing the many great works of art that had unsavory beginnings. I presented arguments, one after the other, pleading for the life of these innocent poems. I told her the transformation of dung into beauty is artistic triumph, and that if it weren’t for errant passion, death, despair, and loss, the great bulk of art would never have been born. She eventually acquiesced and ultimately transcribed the sixty-six poems to Austin into her computer. I felt like a hero who had rescued a precious ancient manuscript from the flames.
Much later, when we were reviewing our therapy, I was to learn that this episode was far more than a short subject accompanying the main attraction of unpacking the mysterious sealed box. Because Sally was so ashamed of the affair and her participation in Austin’s elaborate bondage rituals, she had never shared this with a living soul in all these decades. Revealing all to me and getting a supportive response had great impact. She felt enormously liberated and, for the first time, asked for and received a hug at the end of the session.
That night she had a dream. “I found a pile of folded laundry by my door that someone, possibly my husband, had placed there. I started to put it back in the washing machine—it might have gathered dust sitting there—but then I decided against it and put the clothes in my dresser.” The dream message was all too clear: she had no more dirty laundry to wash.
All the while, as Sally sifted through her stories and poems, and we discussed all the variegated and rich issues contained therein, I anticipated the uncovering of more portentous themes. Where were all those dark works that had caused her to bury her writing for a lifetime? Where, for example, was that dreaded bus story?
And then one day it arrived. She entered my office holding a folder. “Here’s the story. Would you please read this?”
I opened the folder. The five-page story was entitled “Riding on the Bus.” It was a simply told story of a young girl hugely upset by a fight with her parents and by taunting from cruel classmates. She decides to cut the rest of the school day and, for the first time, seriously considers suicide. It is a freezing winter day, far too cold for the hour’s walk home, and yet she has no money to take the bus. Her father’s office is nearby, but the previous day he refused to come to her assistance during a heated confrontation with her mother, and she was still too enraged with him to ask for a ride home or for bus money. And so the young girl steps onto the bus and pulls her pockets inside out to indicate she has no money. The bus driver starts to refuse her entry but, seeing how she shivers from the cold, simply nods for her to board. She sits in the back of the bus and weeps softly the entire trip. At the end of the route all the passengers disembark, and the driver turns the engine off. He is about to get off the bus for his ten-minute coffee break when he notices the sobbing young girl and asks why she hasn’t gotten off. She tells him she lives at the other end of the route, and he not only lets her stay on the bus but also buys her a Coke and invites her to sit near him by the heater in the front. For the rest of the day the girl and the driver ride back and forth together on the bus.
I looked up from the story. “This is the dark story you dreaded so much?”
“No, I never found that story.”
“And this story?”
“I wrote it yesterday.”
I was speechless. We sat in silence for a few minutes until I ventured, “You know what I’ve been thinking? Remember what I said to you a few weeks ago, when you had come to realize that your parents weren’t cruelly withholding love but that they simply didn’t have it to give?”
“I remember clear as a bell. That was when you said that I had to give up the hope for a better past. That phrase caught my attention and has been circling in my mind ever since. I didn’t like it, but it was helpful. It got me over a tough spot.”
“Giving up the hope for a better past is a potent idea. I’ve uttered it to help many others, and it’s also helped me personally. But today, here,” I handed her back the story, “you’ve given it a creative and unexpected twist. You didn’t give up the hope for a better past; instead you’ve written a new past for yourself. Pretty impressive route you’ve taken.”
Sally put the story back into her briefcase, looked up, smiled, and offered one of the loveliest compliments I’ve ever received: “It’s not so hard if you’ve got a kind bus driver.”
Creatures of a Day
IRVIN D. YALOM