Love, the Universe

act with intention and the universe responds

Publishing a gut-spilling memoir certainly clarifies what it means to act with intention. This is not language I’m entirely comfortable using. Despite the fact that I’ve lived in Northern California for sixteen years, I have yet to read a book by Deepak Chopra, who wrote, “Your focused intentions set the infinite organizing power of the universe in motion.” Chopra believes the universe has bigger things in store for us than our blinkered brains can imagine, different outcomes than the ones we try to force.

I’m here today to say that the man knows whereof he speaks. The unforced outcome of your dogged intent, the thing that shows up out of the blue, that you never saw coming, that you couldn’t have dreamed if you tried—that thing the universe has up its sleeve for you is stupefyingly amazing!

I’ve written elsewhere about some of the uncanny connections my book has allowed me to make with some wonderful people. I told myself those were very cool coincidences, nothing more. My apologies to the universe for not recognizing your handiwork right off the bat.

In May, after the reading I gave at my local bookstore from Every Moment of a Fall: A Memoir of Recovery Through EMDR Therapy, people lined up to have their copies signed. One woman seemed to hesitate when her turn came. I said hello. She kind of stammered how much she enjoyed the reading. There was a pause. Then she told me her name was Carol, and that she grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, where I’m from, and where the plane my dad was flying crashed when I was sixteen. Then she said my sister Nancy, who was killed in the crash, had been one of her closest childhood friends. They’d spent summers together at the Concord Country Club. Then she told me she lives right here in the same small California town as me. Then she said she’s a psychotherapist. Who does EMDR.

Mind fully and completely blown, courtesy of the universe.

I couldn’t really make words come out of my mouth. I was in the middle of signing her book and found myself writing, Wow! Wow! Wow! Somehow, I had the presence of mind to hand her a Post-It note and ask for her email address. It took me a couple of days to convince myself that the unfathomable had actually happened. Then I emailed her.

We went for the first of what would become many walks. We established that Carol and my sister Nancy were the same age, four years younger than me. Both Carols (she and I) have a sister named Sue who is four years older than we are. Which makes Carol’s sister Sue my age. It slowly dawned on me that we were in the same high school class. We played freshman field hockey together.

Carol and Nancy became friends because they both felt ostracized by the other kids who spent their days at the club pool. This is not hard to imagine. The country club was home territory to the New England uber-WASP. So Nancy and Carol kept to themselves. Carol described a little stand of apple trees between the pool and the tennis courts where they hung out, eating lunch in the shade. Maybe once or twice chucking apples at passing cars. And talking for hours about all kinds of things, like what they struggled with or longed for in their twelve-year-old hearts. For years after Nancy died, Carol felt like she’d never find another friend who got her the way Nancy did.

This was my bratty little sister we were talking about. The one who couldn’t let me be for five seconds without dropping the cat onto my book, or snapping off the bathroom light from the outside, or tattling to Mom that I’d used my allowance to buy candy. I’d never given any thought to the possibility that she’d had an inner life, that she harbored secrets and dreams she’d never shared with me. Suddenly, here was a person who admired my sister in a way I never had, giving me a glimpse of the textured creature I never knew her to be.

I tried to convey how meaningful it was to learn these things about Nancy all these decades later—to get a peek into my sister’s psyche. And how great it was to hear about Carol’s own life—her time in college and grad school, her husband and two kids, the places she’s lived and the work she’s done. Not only was it lovely to start to know Carol, getting acquainted helped me picture what Nancy’s life could have been like had she survived.

We hugged goodbye and Carol offered to be my adopted little sister.

After that first walk, I dreamed about Nancy. She was a small child in the dream, while my sister Sue and I were our adult selves. We were protecting Nancy from a bully, using our grown bodies to shield her. Another woman in the room with us began urging me to let Nancy fend for herself, warning me that was the only way my little sister would learn to roll with life’s punches. I became enraged, shouting at the woman to butt out, telling her she had no idea what a troubling past Nancy had endured.

When I woke up, I wondered if the other person in that room was me too, in the way it sometimes goes in dreams, where we play multiple characters and see the action from  multiple perspectives. Maybe my dream was showing me two sides of the coin, two versions of the story of Nancy’s life. The version I’d vehemently guarded for years cast my sister as a helpless child. Now that was being challenged by critical new information, by all there was to learn about my sister from a second Carol, who remembers Nancy as capable, even fierce.

After that first walk, Carol had a similar experience. She made a painting about Nancy. It turns out that, in addition to being an EMDR therapist, Carol has an MFA in painting. It’s her vehicle for addressing and processing complex emotions, or working through knotty problems. Meeting me, reading my book, learning things about her friend she’d never known before had unsettled her. She began to think she had idealized Nancy in some ways, making her stand for certain Big Important Things in her mind. So she made a painting to work through that. The one at the top of this page.

When Carol first showed me the canvas, all I could think was: coast of Maine. That’s where our family spent much of my childhood. But beyond the immediate personal association, there was something starkly elemental about the work, its juxtaposition of a cold, stony (one might say frozen) bluescape against the warm browns, ochres and greens of the overlaid trees Carol collaged in. Those greens and yellows are slowly seeping into the blues, as if the two versions of Nancy’s story, slapped together, are merging. Making something new.

Perhaps it’s impossible to keep ourselves from freezing the dead in past time, or idealizing them as we begin to forget the subtler things. I think both of us Carols allowed Nancy to become more of a symbol of something we needed to believe and less of a person, as time passed.

Today, thanks to the improbable ways of the universe, I’m getting a peek at the real girl who sat under those apple trees sharing her struggles. I acted with intention, releasing my story into the world, and the outcome is something I never could have imagined. I’ve been given the chance to understand that my little sister may have only lived twelve years, but she had a robust emotional life, and a kindred-spirit confidante. One who answers to my name. One who I now call sister and friend.

Burning Down the House

reliving trauma

by guest blogger Andy Weisskoff, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Some people who survive a life or death event — like war, sexual assault, or a plane accident — get mired, reliving trauma for decades, experiencing the intense anxiety, depression, vigilance, flashbacks, and nightmares characteristic of PTSD. For these people, memories remain vivid and feel horribly alive until a therapeutic intervention, such as EMDR, softens them. For others, who have been through the same types of dangerous events, memories of the trauma transform apace into manageable life lessons, without professional intervention.

The difference is in large part determined by the social resources available in the aftermath of trauma. If you have people around who help you process the thoughts and emotions aroused by trauma, you are much more likely to recover. If, however, you struggle alone with your memories, and the conclusions about yourself that follow, (like, “It was all my fault,” or “I’m still in danger,” or “Something’s wrong with me), the memories stay stuck in their original form, inspiring fight/flight/freeze responses to triggers of the original event.

I’m reminded of the episode of the 1970s TV series The Waltons where the family’s house burns down. In case you don’t know the show, I’ll recap using my very faulty memory of watching it forty years ago. One night in Depression-era Virginia, John Boy Walton leaves his lit pipe on a table in the hallway. That same night Grandpa Walton leaves the electric heater running in the bathroom. The next day both artifacts are discovered in the smoking embers. But was it John Boy’s pipe or Grandpa’s heater responsible for the disaster?

Eventually, (it was a two-part episode), Grandpa Walton takes John Boy aside in an effort to ease his guilty mind. Grandpa says something like, “It was either your pipe or my heater that burned the house down. We’ll never know which. Either way it was an accident. Put it behind you or you’ll drive yourself crazy with guilt. And that won’t help anyone.”

Wisdom from Walton’s Mountain.

After a catastrophe, the reactions of family and friends have the power to either mediate or reinforce our tendency toward self-blame. At the time of the event, if the people close to us are non-blaming, if they tell us, “This is not your fault,” or, “Even if you participated, you had your reasons,” if they say, “I’m glad you survived,” and “I still love you,” we have a decent chance of setting the experience to rest alongside our other important life lessons. If, however, the soothing messages are absent, if they’re ambiguous or frankly accusatory, our memory of the event will stay alive indefinitely, along with the belief, “I’m bad.”

In Every Moment of a Fall, Carol’s memoir of recovery from trauma using EMDR, we watch in agony as her parents miss one opportunity after another to challenge her self-blame. Like John Boy with his pipe, Carol takes responsibility for the crash that killed her sister. Then, because there is no Grandpa Walton in her story, (not in her immediate family, nor, when she becomes an adult, in her primary relationships), she remains stuck. That is, until her therapists Connie and Jan arrive. Connie, with acceptance and gentle prodding, starts challenging her life’s narrative.  Jan, with EMDR, facilitates a radical re-examination of the facts. When the work is done, instead of believing the accident is all her fault, she sees it as nobody’s. From this vantage she gets curious about why her dad let her take the blame in the first place, why her mom went along, and why the other men in her life had followed suit.

After EMDR Carol rejoins her life from a new perspective: “Accidents happen. People who blame me when things go wrong, or allow me to blame myself, are not on my side.” This perspective suggests an action plan: “From now on, I’m only hanging with the non-blamers.”

And that, as the poet wrote, has made all the difference.

Andy Weisskoff, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and EMDR specialist. Learn more about EMDR and his practice at

Crash Convergence



Your odds of crashing in a commercial airplane are about the same as your odds of getting struck by lightning. The risk goes up considerably in a private plane. Still, how many people do you know who’ve been in an airplane crash? I’ve never personally met anyone else who survived one. Until recently, I’d only met two people who even had plane crash stories in their families.

Imagine, then, how eerie it was to find myself in a laundry room at a housewarming party with two strangers whose parents had died in airplane crashes. Wait, it gets even freakier. We quickly discovered that each of our family’s crashes occurred in the 1970s. Both of theirs happened outside the same city in Peru, of all places. One was a commercial flight. The other, like mine, was a private plane.

Hold on, you’re saying. What were you doing in the laundry room? That’s where our friends had set up the bar, on top of the washer and drier. The space could only hold half a dozen people, and 50% of us standing in it at that moment had either been in a plane crash, lost family members in a plane crash, or both.

What are the odds?

Turns out one of my new crash compadres, Ray, lives just a few blocks down the street from me. (Cue Twilight Zone music.) The other, Mark, is an Oakland-based journalist whose three books and scads of print stories focus on human-created environmental disasters. When he told me about his involvement with the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) in Emeryville, that was the last straw. My mind was fully and officially blown.

Here’s why. The Executive Director of CIR is Robert Rosenthal—a journalist with a long and storied career that’s included executive editor positions at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chauncey Bailey Project. Before he became an award-winning fancy-pants, though, Rosenthal was a reporter for the Boston Globe. After our plane crashed in October 1979, it was his byline on that newspaper’s coverage.

What this means, in case you’re having trouble tracking all the woo-woo connections, is that my new friend Mark, whose parents died in a plane crash around the same time as my little sister, happens to work with the guy who wrote the newspaper stories about the crash that killed her. The crash I survived 37 years ago.

I shit you not.

Mark gave me Robert’s email address and urged me to get in touch with him. He knew “Rosey” would be interested to hear from me. And guess what? He was right! I took my time contacting him, worried that a big-wig newsman wouldn’t have time for my small-potatoes story.  An hour after I finally sent the email, though, I got a reply. Robert asked if we could get together and talk. He had a vague memory of the incident, he said, and wondered if I had clips of the stories he’d written.

We met three days later in the CIR offices. He told me that once he’d read the clips I sent, memories of reporting the story came back to him. He’d spent a day in our small town outside Boston interviewing people, including a neighbor girl who’d been playing tetherball with Nancy the day before she died. He remembered how devastated everyone he spoke to had been by the news.

More than once in the course of our conversation he marveled at how infrequently this sort of thing happens. Journalists rarely get to follow up with the people they write about, he said, even though certain stories remain front of mind. To hear my version of the crash events, and to learn about my protracted struggle and how I finally got the help I needed to re-engage with life—this was clearly a moving experience for him.

As it was for me. I kept having to remind myself that I was face-to-face with someone who’d been there. Someone who canvassed the neighborhood while Mom, Dad and I lay in our hospital beds. He glimpsed a side of the events I would have missed, if not for his newspaper articles. It felt incredibly lucky and so very sweet to get the chance to connect with him after more than 35 years.

Perhaps the coolest coincidence of all is that I met these folks just a few months before the release of my memoir about the plane crash. It’s as if, once I’d got the story down on paper, the universe started putting people in my path to say: this matters.

I sent Robert my book manuscript. Once again, his reply was immediate. “Thank you Carol,” he wrote. “I just read the first few pages. The narrative is powerful, gripping and wonderfully written.” I flushed with pride.  He continued, “I think anyone who reads the first few pages will read the book. It pulls you along. . . . Congrats.”

I am here to say, alive to say: Life is brutal, enervating, raucous, stupefying, jubilant. Extremely weird. And so dear.

Married to Therapy



You wouldn’t know it from this blog, but for years I was dead-set against psychotherapy. A brief stint in college with the wrong therapist had a lot to do with that. So did my own decades-long denial that anything was wrong. But I also got the hint early on that I wasn’t deserving of the care a good therapist provides, and that made me spiteful.

Soon after my mother married Dad #2, they put my little sister Nancy into therapy. She’d been shunted from one babysitter to another during Dad’s protracted divorce and she was pissed. Dad bragged that Nancy was seeing the best child psychologist at McLean’s Hospital. I wasn’t offered the option after our plane crash, so I pretended not to care. I didn’t need that kind of help. Therapy was for losers.

It wasn’t until I was pushing forty and desperate to save my relationship with my partner of fifteen years that I finally reconsidered. He’d started seeing a therapist and insinuated that, if I did the same, he might not leave me. Even though I was coerced, somehow I recognized that Connie Rubiano, a licensed clinical social worker, was the life raft for me. “Ahoy,” she said. “Climb aboard.” And I did. Thank god! Now I know just how incredible it is to come out the other side of your misery.

Psychotherapy is not the only way to accomplish this, but it sure did the trick for me. My work with Connie, and with Jan Cehn, the EMDR therapist she referred me to, transformed my life. I can’t sing their praises loudly enough.

I guess it’s no surprise that I wound up married to a therapist, then. (Not my own therapist. Ew!) After the relationship I’d tried so hard to save went south, and after I found my nerve, I did the online dating thing. There he was in pixels–a writer and therapist who specialized in EMDR. It seemed too good to be true, but he kept turning out to be the real deal.

Nuns marry Jesus. I married therapy, and it couldn’t be a more perfect match.

My emotional life just gets better and better. Since meeting my husband, I’ve learned what it means to be adored, muffin top and all. I’ve gotten better at forgiving myself, at tuning out the critic in my head. I’ve also learned how to fight in a way that clears the air instead of making it fouler, how to accept an apology instead of clinging to an offense, how to abide the fact that not everyone thinks I’m awesome 100% of the time. And that’s just for starters. I’m still working on getting to the point without chickening out when something is difficult to say. Allowing that someone else’s bad mood is probably not my fault. Not leaping to problem-solve everything for everyone.

As if all that weren’t already an embarrassment of riches, I got a bonus, too. My husband is as talented a writer as he is a therapist. And he’s an incredible editor.

I’ve read over and over that married or partnered writers should NOT edit one another’s work. Some say it puts too much strain on the relationship. Others say it doesn’t give the work enough of an objective appraisal. I’ve also read many accounts of married and partnered writers who ignore these warnings and do just fine.

I can’t say how things will go in the future, but when I was drafting and revising my memoir Every Moment of a Fall, being married to therapy was the best thing EVER. Who else would you want sitting next to you while cranking on the umpteenth draft of a book about your own therapy experience but a therapist who also happens to be a kick-ass editor (and who loves you best of anyone in the world)? We pored over every single word together. Literally. We plugged my laptop into the TV monitor and scrutinized each page on the large screen.

Sometimes it drove us nuts. He had to be in control of the wireless keyboard, for instance, since he said I type too slowly. It’s true, I do. I can’t type without looking at my hands. But still. Sometimes we got hung up because the word or phrase he insisted I change was absolutely, non-negotiably the one I wanted. But inch by inch, we made the story clearer, the experience more vivid, the healing more apparent. More days than not, we’d high-five at the end of an editing session, thrilled at the good work we’d done together.

If you’re a writer, you know what a demanding and mostly solitary job it is. Having a mate who gets that, who understands how bloody hard you worked to lay six words next to each other in gorgeous order, who can help you amp those words up from gorgeous to chill-inducing—well, that feels slightly miraculous. It feels like being carried over the threshold. Home.




Pardon the lengthy hiatus, dear reader. Your blogger has been AWOL lo these many months, toiling away in the land of revision.

But I’m baaaaaack.

Which can only mean one thing: my book manuscript is finished! After several additional rounds of reimagining, rehashing, reorganizing, rejiggering, recombining, realigning and resweating bullets, I’d like to say Halle-frickin-lujah. Can I get a witness?

This thing is really happening.

Embracing the Wild, Part 2



A quick recap. In September, I got my do-over Grand Canyon road trip, with a detour to Telluride, where I got a hug from the luscious Cheryl Strayed. As if that weren’t already an embarrassment of wildness, here’s what else I got out of the adventure: a publisher for my memoir.

Yep, that’s right. I sold my book, good people! If all goes according to plan, you’ll be able to buy a copy (at your local independent bookstore, natch) next year.

Some potent magic went to work for me in Colorado. First there was the Strayed encounter I described in Part 1 of this post. What happened after that is so unlikely I had to create an extra post to do it justice.

We were having coffee with the gang of folks who gather for the film festival every year at our friend Nancy’s house. It was our last morning in Telluride. My husband Andy and I were talking with Anne and Tim, an interesting couple from Tucson we’d met that weekend. From across the room, our friend Jacqi interrupted. “Tim, did Carol tell you she’s a writer? She’s written a terrific memoir.” Before Tim could respond, she added, “Carol, did Tim tell you he’s a publisher?”

Tim and I looked at each other a little agape. Suddenly, we had even more to talk about. There wasn’t much time. Andy and I were leaving that morning for the last leg of our vacation. Tim and Anne were hitting the road for the long drive back to Tucson. But the more Tim and I talked, the longer we lingered. I filled him in on the plane crash, tried to give him a quick gloss of my family history, explained how I got into therapy after 20 years and how EMDR turned everything around for me.

He said he’d love to read the manuscript. I emailed the file to him when we got home from our vacation. I figured, if nothing else, I’d get the input of someone who knows the publishing industry inside and out.

I let Tim know there were a few literary agents who’d expressed interest in my book. I’d been sending out queries for months, and some of the agents I’d contacted had asked to see the full memoir. Three of them were still holding the manuscript. Two of the three hadn’t emailed me in quite a while, but I had to assume they were still interested. These days, agents are besieged. Everyone and their mother has a book to sell, which means the sifting and the reading take a long time. I wasn’t firing off impatient emails (yet), but it was getting harder to sit around waiting for someone to bite.

Meanwhile, Tim called to tell me he loved the book. He’d showed it to Anne and she loved the book.  He was sure an agent would want to represent me. He’d been an agent himself for ten years before starting the press, so I figured he would know. He asked that I steer my agent, when I got one, in his direction, because he’d love to publish the book.

I don’t know why I hadn’t considered the independent press option before. I’d gotten it stuck in my head that I’d either sell the book to one of the commercial houses or publish it myself. I really, really, really didn’t want to go the self-publishing route though, because it’s so incredibly hard to get those books seen and reviewed and read. Even though a large percentage of the books on my shelves were published by small and university presses, I hadn’t even investigated the option for my memoir.


Turns out it’s a really, really, really good option.  Tim’s press publishes only six titles per year. He caps it there so he can stay personally involved in the editing, production and promotion of each one. He hand-picks the books he wants to put out into the world, and because he believes so strongly that those books matter, he works hard at getting them noticed and keeping them in print. He has a team of publicists and social media folks working with his authors, and he partners with agents who specialize in the subsidiary rights he doesn’t handle himself.

I had to ask myself what else I was holding out for. Especially in light of the fact that only one of the three agents sitting on my manuscript managed to reply to the email I sent informing them that a publisher was interested.  I’d gotten a lot of positive response over the course of many months querying agents. Nearly half of them had asked to see the book. Some were initially enthusiastic, but nobody was saying: You’re our girl! I figured an agent needed to be jumping up and down about my memoir to even get it past the lobby of one of the big publishing houses.

The agents I’d contacted weren’t exactly jumping up and down. But Tim was.

So I jumped too. Not right away, mind you.  First I had to get past the fact that it all felt too easy. An enthusiastic publisher with a great track record had practically fallen into my lap. Shouldn’t I be struggling harder to get my first book sold? Knocking on doors until my knuckles melted? Wasn’t I supposed to make a blood pact with an agent?

Nah! I finally let myself yield to the serendipity of the thing. I called Tim and suggested we go for it. No reason we shouldn’t take matters into our own hands instead of waiting around for an agent to get involved.

He patiently answered a million questions and walked me through the details of a publishing agreement. I hired an IP attorney through California Lawyers for the Arts to review my contract. Then I signed on the dotted line and collected the first part of my advance. Yes people, I said advance. From an indie press. It’s far from a major payday (more like a few bottles of rare wine), but it’s a clear indication that Tim is invested in me and my book.

Can I get a Woo-hoo?

This year will be about editing, finding a new title, settling on a cover—all the things it takes to get the manuscript into its final form. Then the pre-publication promotion will kick in during the months leading up to a spring or early summer 2016 release. It’s still hard to believe this thing I’ve been working on forever is actually going to become a book. About time!

Bring on the wild rumpus.