(August 2020) Bad Manners, High Vanity and an Ecology of Therapeutic Receiving Contexts
Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find. – Terry Tempest Williams
Since COVID-19 became part of our regular routine, many good friends in lockdown put their heart and soul into gardening vegetables, learning Spanish, raising fitness, reading novels they longed to read, professional couch sitting, adventure cooking, and discovering watchable nightly shows beyond Netflix. Me? I decided to quit smoking 31 days and 31 nights ago. Figured I’d give it another go. Nine more days and nights and we’re cruising towards 40 days in the desert biblical territory. Before you jump the gun to kind congratulatory offerings, I should probably offer a little historical context. That is to say, I would advise against securing a bet on my behalf with Jimmy the Greek. Myself, and best friend Marty were first caught smoking when we were age seven, maybe eight. This wasn’t at all an entirely strange phenomenon in the working class white immigrant neighbourhood we grew up inside. My father looked at Marty (not me) and stated I had a choice to make: smoke cigarettes or play hockey? I couldn’t do both. There was no playing both sides against the middle (a value he averred all throughout my life). He uttered not a single moral or health concern word about under aged smoking. I’d just begun playing Triple A hockey. Hockey’s highest level of play. In Toronto. The centre of the hockey-playing universe. Home and away equipment, new skates, sticks, tournaments and travel. I played another six years at this level without a puff. Marty went puff-free as well. At age ten, Marty and I had our first police encounter, and other than a few other scrapes along the way we were successful at putting those happenstances behind us. Other boys in the neighbourhood we grew up in were not so fortunate. Two brothers across the street from where we lived and another kid across the street and down 4 houses all did significant stretches of time in jail. Ours was sometimes a tough place to grow up in but not tough enough to afford us pre-ordained fates. My next-door neighbour became the editor of Maclean’s magazine, and other neighbour kids on our block grew up and became a Federal member of Parliament, the Dean of a University Department, a medical doctor, the first Canadian signing with Island records, the head researcher for Canada’s national newspaper, and on it goes. Canadian working-class white kids born of immigrant parents like me growing up in the 60’s and 70’s had much healthier access to education, steady employment, collective/working social democratic values and the embedded hope that anything was a possibility. Marty’s mother (and my mothers best friend) died of lung cancer when we were fourteen. She smoked Rothmans. A large pack a day. Her death was hard, especially on he and his six siblings. I’d say by age nineteen he and I and many of our friends were becoming familiar with a daily smoking lifestyle. I’ll flutter a guess that each and every 12 month period from about the age of twenty-five onward, I’d go through the ritual of quitting smoking. As many do. Popular indeed. These flirtatious intermittent health spells lasted anywhere between 3 weeks to 5 months in duration. One year I made it all the way to 10 months free. And during the heavy rotation and super fit years of Ultimate Frisbee, including four years playing on the Canadian National Team, my routine was stopping in April, play nicotine free until late August, and take the smokes back up in the Fall and Winter. I’d have to say my addiction to nicotine is a bit complicated. Many find my smoking out of line with the perception they hold of me – or at least this is what they tell me. I’d be inclined to say smoking is stupid, not to mention deadly, but this short changes the multifaceted relationship I have with nicotine, including the many miles we’ve enjoyed together all along the way. My goal, this time around, is to go smoke free until a COVID-19 vaccination is found. Ok that’s a little stupid I know.
THE NEXT GENERATION: This is not a reference to Star Trek
Continental philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, known best for his writings on hermeneutics, wrote that we cannot step over our shadows. That we are connected in a continuous thread with our past, with traditions, and with our ancestors. For good and for bad, we are living out traditions bequeathed to us by others. And although we may be taking them up in different ways, they remain influential of who we are and how we shape and live our lives. The echoes of our narrative therapy history are always inadvertently and deliberately inviting us into both past and new ways of being in the present and future. We converse in therapeutic worlds that recede into the past and extend into the future, allowing us practicing therapists to re-member, re-collect, and re-call what may matter most about the values we hold onto doing the practice we do. The address of narrative therapy tradition is not just something arching from before but rather how we internalize and practice it’s central and historical beliefs and values and where these may end us up in the future. The other day I was re-reading my black Moleskin notebook writings. I jotted down at the time of Michael White’s death on April 4th, 2008. On that very day I happened to be visiting with a close mutual Australian friend of both of ours in Dublin who had just arrived in from a visit with Michael in England. What I wrote down was how happy he was to experience Michael’s ‘new lease on life’, his ‘new joy of living’ (stating: “Michael was a funny and cool version of himself”). He caught me up on the theorists Michael was reading, the children’s book he was writing, bits of the past he was putting behind him, and what his proposed practice plan going forward was going to look like. Amongst our shared grief, I took calm relief hearing these stories. We had a chance to revisit this conversation at length over the course of a few days prior to us presenting at the 2016 Therapeutic Conversations conference here in Vancouver. To suggest Michael wanted to start his practice ‘all over again’ is a misnomer. If I were to pause and speculate within the realm of my personal and present day relationship with him (knowing how dangerous a territory it is to speak generally about what the dead desire), I would wager a ‘guess’ Michael would find most interest in the community of therapists exploring new narrative practices in the therapy chair each day. And rather less intrigued with popular narrative leaning non-practicing Academics and researchers writing about the future of narrative therapy. Therapists like Michael tend to hang with therapists. Many of you who read this little Narrative Newsletter know a central focus rests on how best to help the learning and practice experience of Graduate students and the newly graduated. Baring in mind I mean no disrespect, no taking over the territory of the dead, and no position of authority – if we could agree on this – I’d like to write from an internalized other (thank you Karl!) Michael White position on what I think he might begin saying to Grad students, newly graduated therapists, and our narrative therapy community. Risk yourself. Do not be afraid. Take pause. Reflect. Study your work. Gulp it down. Want more. Make it hard to live without. Learning the practice is to fail. Feel let down. Reflect on how the disappointment feels. Give life to yourself when your session collapses. Practice resuscitation. Accept the rejections of your therapeutic questions. Practice, practice, practice. Until your heart feels raw. Overflowing. Stay in the wonder. The beauty. Stomach your fare portion of the world. Push yourself further. Further than anyone else can push you. Learn the work. Labour it. Have stamina. Do not tread water. Do not allow your heart to harden. Do not. Carry the load. Stay humble in the face of how intoxicating the work can be. Be a student, not a teacher, even when you teach. Share your rage through an elegant question. Resist temptation to argue. Have a plan. The cavalry is not coming. Make every attempt not to wilt. Restore what has been devalued. Practice beyond a despair you engage. Value your values. Make an argument. Stick to it. Question the unimagined. Unique your language. Make the ordinary sublime. Be earnest. Be dedicated. Be kind. Be fierce. Be leaning on your front forward foot. Be subversive of the simple and easy way. Don’t panic. Embrace the mystery. Laugh. Laugh at yourself. Fill your lungs with practice. And if you must, and if it helps, flare your nostrils.
THE NEW FALL SERIES
Come September, I will be participating in three new VSNT.live long play discussion series.
Long play VSNT.live discussion series are weekly, interactive and inspiring. Assigned are pre-watching narrative therapy videos and text to orientate the membership before we take the discussion Live. Long play series provide a nice long drink of water designed to refresh and reboot ones understanding and passion about narrative therapy theory and how we practice. Our long play series do not advertise an actual end date. Similar to my Irish family saying goodbye – the long play series can go on and on and on. On more than one occasion, my parents and family would begin saying goodbye to guests on our front porch around midnight and (no word of a lie) it wasn’t until the morning sun began slowly rising out of the east (and several ‘one last cup of teas’ later) the guests departed. 1) The first Fall series features author and philosopher Todd May’s course on the links between three continental philosophers (Foucault, Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty), and how their ideas prove useful in understanding contemporary cultural movements and, perhaps most importantly, how these philosophical ideas and contemporary cultural understandings might come to shape our day to day practices of narrative therapy practice. 2) Beginning just as we were being locked down, I had the pleasure of completing 15 episodes on the Developing Narrative Therapy Questions series with narrative therapists Helene Grau (Copenhagen), David Rock Nylund (Sacramento). David Marsten (Los Angels) was also with us for 6 episodes before work called him away. The series explores the Ecology of our therapeutic Receiving Context. The ecology of our therapeutic receiving context refers to how the complex matrix of our therapeutic practice understandings fit together. Specifically the ecology we narrative therapists cultivate and grow in order to engage and receive the stories clients tell us through complex relational understandings and the relationships between: non-essentialism, Foucault, the absent but implicit, our social locations, our personal histories, landscapes of action and identity, relative influence questions, re-authoring and re-membering conversations, unique outcomes, scaffolding questions, temporality, narrative values, plus + plus +. Each week we discussed where our therapeutic questions and understandings emerged from. All of us practiced our narrative work differently although we share much the same ecologies and understandings. Our discussions pushed my therapeutic learning history and practice work further. For real. Coming out of the final session last week Helene, Rock and I imagined a therapy practice world where there was at least as much time devoted to discussing and analyzing our therapeutic work ecologies as there was for actually practicing our work with clients. Think about it. The second Fall series features myself working once again with Helene and Rock hosting personal reflections, recent couple therapy video sessions, and completely unaltered transcripts on narrative therapy informed Relational Interviewing with conflicted couple relationships. Yes finally – the long play series on relationship focused couple therapy begins. I can’t wait. 3) Our third VSNT.live Fall series features the life and times of author and community worker Aaron Munro in a series entitled Bad Manners. Aaron, Rock, Helene and Todd are all good friends of mine and we also teach together on the faculty of the Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy. Many of you have already been touched by Todd’s philosophical and intellectual virtuosity as well as Helene, Rock and David M’s therapeutic practice luminosity on prior VSNT.live series so . . . please let me take pleasure in introducing you to the wonders of Aaron Munro.
BAD MANNERS SERIES
Aaron is a Trans and Queer guy who engages the others point of view – specifically those who are ‘othered’. He holds difficulty well. Rummages around and holds the mysteries close. His work does not arrive to us from the home of bleeding heart simplicity, nor does he feel the response to homelessness should be relationally, intellectually or politically vacant. He stands up and balances upon the shakiest of ground. Fearless. Awkward. Hopeful. Aching. Finding the universal in the local (and vice versa). With a flair for fair mindedness. The Downtown East Side (DTES) of Vancouver is Canada’s poorest urban neighbourhood and where Aaron has worked for close to 20 years. The DTES is a fair bit notorious for having a lot of what researchers term social ills, a lack of monetary resources and little structural rescue. In 2011, the New York Times wrote following about the DTES: On its core blocks, dozens of people are shuffling or staggering, flinching with cocaine tics, scratching scabs. Except for the young women dressed to lure customers for sex, many are in dirt-streaked clothing that hangs from their emaciated frames. Drugs and cash are openly exchanged. The alleys are worse — Aaron is the only person I know who gives his personal mobile number out to everyone on the streets the NYT describe. In the ten years I have known him we have yet to go anywhere, daytime or late night, breakfast or beers, home or away, when that phone of his hasn’t rung. He picks up. Always. Aaron tends to get properly lost and ultimately found (I suppose this is the ultimate challenge for all of us). His actions inside the poor, ravaged and dispossessed neighbourhoods clearly enunciate power relations. I view his daily work as a form of non-violent engagement and civil disobedience. Our latest VSNT.live series is framed through Aaron’s new book, entitled “Bad Manners”. The book is a non-fiction memoir of his adventures in gender and working alongside people without housing in the DTES. Each chapter reflects a beautiful story of someone without housing he relationally met, befriended, and learned from who deeply touched his political, emotional and intellectual life. Aaron is responsible (alongside like-minded co-workers) for many ‘Bad-Mannered’ projects such as: Sheltering poor people in wealthy neighbourhoods and the cool and respectful NIMBY negotiations that transpire; Opening safer injection sites on a Catholic Hospital property; and operationalizing the first Queer, Trans and Two-Spirit housing for shelter-less youth in Canada. The list goes on.
THE VANITY SCALE
One of the reasons so many of us in the Vancouver and global narrative therapy community love and respect Aaron is because of how low he ranks on the ‘Vanity Scale’. Much like Michael White, Aaron’s escapades working in the hard zones of practice are designed not to inflate his social and moral standing in the eyes of others. He doesn’t seem to know how to grandstand (nor understand why anyone doing the work would?). And he has no capacity to virtue signal or animate his moral conduct and character above others. And I particularly enjoy how he doesn’t over inflate or exaggerate the immense skill of what he does. In the upcoming VSNT.live series you will recognize how Aaron attributes all of what he knows and how he works in the areas of A&D misuse, homelessness, poverty action, opioid crisis, opening shelters, dealing with violence, peer training, mental health stigma, training teams, directing programs etc. to his relationship with shelter-less people he is in relationship with. Aaron could care less that a few persons he has taught and supervised in Vancouver get way more exposure and national recognition. But we let him know we know. And we laugh. He doesn’t condemn, soap box, guilt trip, or finger wag and could care less about citizen medals, Facebook likes, workshop payouts or free trips abroad. Like Michael before him, Aaron just simply goes to work. And gets it done. I feel many of you are going enjoy catching up with Aaron and his guests on the new VSNT.live BAD MANNERS series.
Speaking to the other side of the scale, discussion about the high-end of the vanity seems to be getting a lot of print these days. Front page news and first up on the evening’s television shows. The current sitting President of the USA is the living, breathing poster child sitting atop the high end of the vanity scale. An astonishing 20,000-documented self-serving lies have been reported by the Washington Post and apparently, the lie count continues to climb. High vanity actions in our therapeutic community are somewhat novel but not absent. As a practicing narrative therapist high vanity about any practice of therapy brings on a bit of eye rolling. For example, back a few years ago you will remember something called IWP came along. The issue was not about what the guys were trying to hatch, since all new forms of narrative practice are worth a curious look and a bit of support. The high vanity scale was reached, as it usually is, with their over the top vainglorious pomposity of false promotion and information. Claiming their practice of IWP (which now appears to be MIA) was 20 times more effective than any other narrative therapy practice. Proposals such as this are always bound to fall short of promises made so, it may be advisable, regardless of how excited one feels about what you’re practicing in the therapy room, to consider appearing more Aaron-like than Donald-like. I suppose from time to time, many of us have been struck down by an embarrassing decision to climb aboard the high vanity train. Perhaps not quite at the dodgy levels I’ve described, but nevertheless, within the borders of over selling and - under delivering. I would venture to say narrative therapists I deeply respect sport a ‘casual vanity’. An informal and unplanned vanity regulated by humility, skill, pride in their abilities, and a confidence that fully knows the difference between a solid and a weak practice performance. A healthy bit of vanity built on the realization that what is experienced as relational ‘success in therapy’ is something they comprehend holding a firm guarantee it will not always be present or available. This may be the reason the vanity project for these therapists is kept in balance – a balance always sliding up and down between despairing and rejoicing. The other noticeable quality therapists I marvel at seem to inhabit, is they are continuously on the move and rarely sitting still enough for the high end of vanity to take hold. Never quite still enough for the puffing up or pontificating. These therapists seem to move quickly towards the hunt and the search and the unknowns of practice and from what I can gather, they find their resting spot in a constant state of challenge. Challenge that is confrontational and daring and vulnerable and cleaves open new territory.
One last thing: The Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy is teaching it’s certificate training courses September 23-27, 2020 online. We’d love you to join us. We're at about 55% sold at the moment.
Thanks so much. I’ll let you know how the smoking project progresses . . .
In the meantime keep yourselves and the ones you love safe and interested.