Since You Asked (book #74)

Cary Tennis, 2008.

This is a collection of 94 letters to’s advice columnist, Cary Tennis, and his responses. The online column continues.

What I find interesting is CT’s constant suggestion of reimagining our lives – solving problems by writing new narratives for ourselves (my paraphrase). Here’s an example. Someone wrote to him saying that he/she feels “stuck” by the suicides of both his/her parents in the last ten years – doesn’t feel able to “move past the sadness and anger and shame”. CT writes

… No, that metaphor is not going to lead us very far. Here is another one: The world of inner reference points we have is quite solid. Your reference points are the suicides. They are like fenceposts that define the yard; you can’tgo much beyond them; you don’t know what is out there. When you begin to cross between two fence-posts – the suicide of one, the suicide of the other – there os a pain and a fear of what is on the other side. It could be death, who knows. It could be unimaginable confusion and pain. We are bounded by these events; they circumscribe our lives. But how then can we change? …

But maybe sometimes we boldly walk right by them. We walk right through the fenceposts. There on the right is the suicide of my mother; there on the left is the suicide of my dad. I walk by into the night unafraid, not looking either way. And then maybe one night I walk out and I stare right at the fenceposts: There is the suicide. I stare right at it, unblinking, unflinching. There it is, that’s what happened. There is the other suicide. I stand in the night sky under the stars and the moon, staring at the fenceposts and as I do the skulls of my mother and father appear at the top of the posts.

Maybe at that point I run inside.

Or maybe I don’t run inside. I stand and stare. I contemplate the skulls. I contemplate the deaths. I contemplate the stars. I contemplate the night’s immensity and our brief stay here. I summon courage. They are after all phantoms, these things. They did take many things from you. But they are phantoms. They cannot detach from the fenceposts and come and get you. They cannot sing or yell. They are forever on the other side of time.

This is me attempting to use spatial and temporal metaphors to get at an idea of our relationship to past trauma. It has its drawbacks. But perhaps it will be useful inasmuch as visualization can be useful.

To back away a little from the impressionistic style, however, and try to speak in more direct language, I am trying to say that the first step in dealing with such great tragedies in life is to recognize that they do indeed circumscribe our emotional lives. They are not simply going to go away. They are there, as rooted in the ground as old fenceposts. I say that as a corrective to the expectation that we should be able to easily overcome these things. We cannot. They are powerfully rooted markers, or totems, in our emotional landscape (or seascape, as I now find myself envisioning these markers on lodge poles in the sand at the edge of the sea, perhaps only because that is where I live, at the edge of the sea).

Here’s another of his re-tellings, in response to a woman who had a relationship with an alcoholic (Cary Tennis himself being a recovering alcoholic – see this article) and wants to “figure out how to cope with the fact that I’ll never really know what happened”.

It might help to conceive of this not as a relationship at all, but instead as a gruesome accident, a hit-and-run. You were blindsided. This man was drunk and should never have been given the keys to your heart.

And a last example. This is in reply to a woman who is pregnant, has a small child already and whose husband is too tired (works long hours, and the child is hard work) to have sex with her. She has a woman friend who wants to sleep with her and she’s tempted because the pregnancy hormones are making her desperate for sex. CT says

Here are some questions to consider:

What is my purpose in life? Am I working toward that purpose in this marriage? In living as a heterosexual married woman, am I living a lie? Is the self I present to my husband not my true self? What are my obligations to my children? Who comes first, me or them? To whom or what do I owe ultimate allegiance? To myself? To God? To my children? To ideas? To art? To my country? Are the conditions that are causing my dissatisfaction permanent or temporary? If they are temporary, how can I change them? Or will they change by themselves in time? If I were to end my marriage, how would I justify it to an impartial observer? If I believed I had a soul, what would it be telling me to do?

Those are, as I said, rather sweeping and grand questions. But then you are contemplating some sweeping and grand decisions. That one ought to live one’s life as though it were a work of art has a certain relevance here, in that a work of art requires an overall design or idea in order to stand as a solitary thing in the immensity of time. So does your life.

I understand CT to be saying that one can tell oneself a story about one’s life, and that this can change what one does / how one feels.


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