Academic guilt, work/life balance, and chasing time.

I really love the twitter and facebook feed, “Shit Academics Say”. It’s always accurate and nearly always funny. The image above this post was brazenly stolen from the facebook feed. This week, the humor is a bit too accurate. I’m winding down yet another 6 day work week (which should be seven if you count the exam I just wrote for tomorrow’s class) and wondering how long I’ll be able to keep chugging along apace.

I went back to grad school to get a PhD after getting burned out with direct therapy work. It’s a tough gig. I had a real mission to go out in the world and build up some damned good counselors to work with kids. I’ve definitely done some of that- I’ve had a lot of very talented students over the years.

However, when I take a step back and have time to sneak in some reflective thinking (usually while I’m waiting for a big data package to load or while I’m stuck in an airport), I ask myself if the academia thing is measuring up. At my current joint, I’m being forced to teach four graduate courses a semester, along with program direction, a boatload of clinical supervision hours/week, and of course, somehow I’m supposed to be writing while I keep all of the other plates spinning- and I’m not even getting into the service requirements.

Is it worth the bother?

In monetary terms, no. I’ve never been very motivated by financial gain, but when I calculated my actual hourly wage given the average number of hours I work per week, I did throw up a little. The university doesn’t MAKE me work 60 hour weeks, but if I don’t, plates begin crashing to the floor quickly. And what plates are ok to drop? I feel a deep obligation to the students to educate them adequately for their careers as counselors, so the teaching plate must spin. It’s embarrassing to show up to committee meetings not knowing what’s going on, so that one can’t drop. Publishers get peevish if you miss your deadlines, so the books have to happen, as do the research outcomes, because no one wants to go through IRB twice for the same study.

So, what’s left on the choice chooser? 1. Work long crazy hours. 2. Disappoint self and others.

Not much of a choice. I imagine that #2 is largely a by-product of the personality types common in the academy: compulsive, high self-monitoring, success driven, altruistic overachievers. It might be interesting to parse some of that in terms of early life psychohistory, but that’s not my mission today. Today I’m wandering about trying to decide how to decide the worth of time spent (this is the kind of sentence that ends up on “Shit Academics Say” because no other person would write such a thing).

As Mary Oliver said, we only get one wild and precious life. How we allocate the small quantity of hours within it is an enormous decision, worthy of a great deal of reflection and debate. I’m still working internally on the whole repotting idea; does it make more sense to try and reinvent myself outside of the academic context completely, or to try and talk sense into the admins at my current place of work so that the gig is survivable? Many pieces and parts join together to make this a complex and ambiguous situation, one that I won’t probably have a great answer to anytime really soon. Writing about these inner dialogues can help sort the reasonable thoughts from the nutty propositions, but mostly, it’s a matter of finding time to reflect and consider. I think I’ll start that today with the rest of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, where she equates attention to prayer.

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Grief is love holding on to what is no longer-

During the New Year’s festivities, I learned that a favorite elderly relative suffered a massive stroke and will not likely be among us much longer. She is in her late eighties, lived a very full and vibrant life, and had been declining for some time now. But I’m not ready to give her up. Some wise person told me once that grieving is love that refuses to let go. That’s where I am today, and probably where Edna St. Vincent Millay was when she wrote these words (which I found courtesy of Poetry Foundation). If I’m selfishly holding on rather than letting go with greater wisdom, at least I’m in good company.

Dirge Without Music


I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.

Yuletide Reflection

The close of the year is a time for reflection, when long hours of darkness make doing useful work difficult, and cold weather makes staying indoors seem like the best option.

Wendell Berry, one of my favorite poets, is always handy with words of guidance about how we should aim to be in the world. Wendell can come across as a bit pompous at times, but as a poet, I think he’s earned it.

My Christmas gift to you, an excerpt from Mr. Berry’s latest book, “What are People FOR?”:

“We clasp the hands of those who go before us, and the hands of those who come after us;

we enter the little circle of each other’s arms,

and the larger circle of lovers whose hands are joined in a dance,

and the larger circle of all creatures, passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance, to a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it except in fragments.”

This Yuletide season, I hope you enter many little circles of arms, and hear many fragments of the music of life.


Taking off for the wild blue yonder-

I’m leaving today for a lightening-fast 2 week study abroad experience with 8 intrepid graduate students. We’re going to India: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Mumbai. I may or may not find time and internet connections to post while we’re gone. In the event of no writing time, here are links to some of the fabulous agencies we’ll visit while we’re there:

Salaam Baalak Trust, New Delhi:

Provides food, shelter, and education for thousands of street children. They also run a city walk tour program, which we will get to experience. The city walk tours provide income for the programs, training for the kids who are guides, and give tourists a clearer insight into the lives of street children.

Arpan, Mumbai:

Provides prevention of and treatment to child victims of sexual abuse in Mumbai. Also provides parent education. Arpan is sending speakers to our expressive arts conference in Mumbai.

TTK Hospital for Addictions, Chennai:

We won’t be travelling down to Chennai on this trip, but they are sending a speaker to the conference. One of India’s oldest and largest treatment centers for addictions.

We’ll also be doing tourist stuff: Taj Mahal, Rathambore Tiger Park, Amer Fort, Water Palace, etc.

And eating lots of great, fresh, local Indian food. More posts with photos to come-


Counseling across the “sham of culture”

Last night I finally finished reading the brilliant novel, The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell. It’s one of those can’t-put-it-down-and-go-to-sleep-like-a-sensible-person books. So, as the minutes past midnight ticked by, I reached the conclusion of the book, and as it happened, the end of the rule of the East India Company. In the denouement, the hero is heard to say, “Culture is a sham. It’s a cosmetic painted on life by rich people to conceal its ugliness”.

Well, hell. I had believed that I was going to shortly be released by Farrell’s novel so I could finally join Will in blissful slumber. That line kept me up until my eyelids finally flatly refused to stay open. I woke up this morning still wrestling with the idea of culture as a cosmetic for the wealthy. Certainly money allows the more privileged people in the world to buy their way into far more comfort than others can afford, but what about the rebuttal given in the novel by the callow young romantic poet, “Ideas, too, are a part of culture. No one can say ideas are a sham. Our progress depends on them”. Given that he meant “progress” in the best British colonial sense, it’s a highly charged term (Farrell has his British overlords starving and rotting in the marble-columned banqueting hall their predecessors in the Company built in happier days to underline the whole “progress” conceit.)

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m getting ready to go back to India next week. I’m taking grad students, and we’re co-hosting a conference on art and play therapies for trauma at a college in Mumbai. There are a *lot* of ideas going on there, and many of them are about “progress”.

All of which leads back to the starting point of the circle: how much of what we call “culture” is cosmetic? How much of what we generally call “multicultural” or “cross-cultural” counseling is then also cosmetic?

Because I am truly a pedant some days, I’m going to begin my response (certainly not an answer) with a definition. Mr. Merriam and Mr. Webster say, “the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time: a particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.: a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business).”

In therapy, the key bit of the definition is the middle, the “way of life” bit.That’s where we tend to get hung up- how differently people from various cultures view constructs such as the “right” way to conduct male/female relationships, the “right” way to behave in public, to work, to/if worship, etc. We’ve seen a far too vivid example of clashing ideas of what’s “right” in terms of the behavior and role of the police in Ferguson recently.

So, right, back to the therapy room with us.

How much, if any, of the typical “cultural” considerations we tend to consider when working with people are cosmetics designed to paint over (white wash?) the ugliness of life? When counseling students write up case reports, we always expect them to talk about the client’s gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, marital status, and social class. This is intended to help the reader better understand the issues presented and the relevance of the treatment plan.

I do think including cultural/demographic data is important to designing effective treatment: the inner world view of the client is central to the likelihood that treatment will be helpful. Knowing your client is generally considered to be key to helping him/her.

But what if  it’s not?

If Farrell’s hero is on the right track, maybe culture matters less than we’ve been taught? I think working with play and art as healing media certainly flattens out a lot of the usual demographics, especially with young children. What I mean is, children can decide that a car is a car, or it’s a bed, or it’s a spaceship. Since I don’t use any of the classic psychoanalytic or psychodynamic theories where the therapist interprets the symbols in the play or art for the client, which is very judgement-laden and very seriously culturally created, it is what the client says it is.

Even so, when working with clients or students from cultures very different from my own, such as the students I’ll be teaching in India later this month, how much of what I’m saying is “progress” is a cosmetic to make the ugliness look better?

I’m going to talk a good deal about brains while I’m there. Brains are pretty much the same in all humans, anatomically. We’ve learned a tremendous amount about how our brains work; how they’re hurt by traumas and how they can heal, in the last few years. It’s wonderful to know more about all of that. We should be able to extrapolate some of this into new formulas for medication that are more effective and targeted. We should be able to devise more effective therapies. We certainly have a huge quantity of new evidence that play does, in fact, heal.

But how relevant is that in a country with nearly zero mental health care?

I don’t want to be the Avon Lady of mental health in the developing world. I think in order to avoid that sad outcome, I’m going to have to be on my toes to be sure I can tell if I’m carrying a suitcase full of make-up around with me. And I’d better be careful not to open it up and start make-overs on a bunch of unsuspecting Indian folks. I think they’ve seen that act before.

Extra words.

Even though graduate classes are three hours long, I still always have things left to say after the last student leaves the room. All too often, I come up with my best material while I’m walking back to my office from class. This blog is one attempt to share more after class is over.

All of my students know I’m passionate/totally nuts about the healing power of play and the expressive arts in therapy. I absolutely believe, right down to my toes, that play, art, and the act of having a witness to your creative expression can cure almost anything. My specialty is young children who have complex trauma, and I’ll write a lot about them. However, play and arts can heal the big folks just as well as the littles.

I’ll probably also post material here that may end up in a book sooner or later, sort of to test it out, minus all of the rules and formatting books require.

Thank for reading along- more soon!