The Gift

He couldn’t stay in his body, the pain was too great. It was Joe’s leaving time, but my mother couldn’t let him go.

I was in Oregon, gathering car keys, handbag and notebook. It was a racing-out-the-door morning, my thoughts intent on teaching and the forty-five minute drive between my house in the Columbia River Gorge and Marylhurst University. Photographs of my New York family were ensconced above the fireplace, mingled with decorative candles and a ticking clock.

Did I have everything? I thought so. Just one more pass through the living room to make sure. Then I saw it, Joe’s photo glowing with light, a sure-fire way for the unseen reality to get my attention. I stopped. Everything coming to an abrupt halt as I picked up his picture, dropped to the sofa and closed my eyes. Acceleration and tension drained from my body. I softened and exhaled. Joe was in the hospital in upstate New York but his spirit was there with me.

“I need you to talk to your mother,” he said, hovering in my vision. “Help her to let me go. I want to die before my birthday, but she has to release me first. I need to hear her say it out loud. I need to know that it’s alright to go. Ask her to tell me, then ask her to open the closet and begin giving away my things.”

My chest filled with the light and energy of his message, his words floating around my cells like weightless sand. Then he was gone.

That memory, nearly twenty years old, drifted through my thoughts as I sat at the dinner table listening to Julio describe a week-end with his family.

“When I speak about my art,” he says, spooning brown rice next to carne asada, “it’s as if they can’t hear me. I show them my paintings in The Art Detour brochure and they say nothing, their expressions are blank. Yet I feel disapproval because I am not working in the way they think I should be.”

Julio comes from a family of laborers and field workers who strive to keep their pockets full, their personal dreams diminished by a harsh reality.

“They have no frame of reference for it,” I tell him. “Art is a foreign world.”

A deep well of sadness lingers in Julio’s eyes, a longing for an acceptance that can not be given, a longing I’m familiar with.

I remembered replacing Joe’s photo on the mantel, wondering how I could bring such news to my mother.

“This is my daughter, Karen,” she’d tell her friends. “She is a free spirit.” And later, behind closed doors: “When are you going to get a real job?”

Intuitive work didn’t show up for my family. When I spoke of visions or predictive dreams, my words were met with confusion, talk of brain tumors and lingering looks of concern. Eventually, I learned to keep my mouth closed and a sensitive nature to myself.

I called that evening, knowing what a difficult time mother was having, though she rarely showed vulnerability. I hedged, not knowing how to bring up the topic but needn’t have. Near the close of conversation, she surprised me:

“Do you get anything for me?”

“What do you mean, get anything?”

“You know, psychically.”

I was silent. Joe had openly ridiculed my gifts and yet come to me for help.

“Yes,” I told her. “I do have things to share.”

She listened respectfully as I closed my eyes,  a vision of Joe’s pain-filled body hovering in my awareness.

“He wants to go before his birthday, but your love is holding him here. He wants you to let him leave.”

“I can do that,” she whispered, her voice private and internal. “I’ll tell him today. And there’s a young man from the firehouse that would fit one of his coats. I know Joe would like him to have it.”

I hung up, aware of the healing that had taken place. A warm sense of gratitude washed over me, like some long awaited rain in the desert.

Joe was born on April 8, 1920, and died on April 3, 1993.

I reached for mother’s hand as we stood in the funeral home reception line, hushed pieces of conversation passing between us.

“What made you ask for my vision during our phone call? You’ve never done that before.

“Just a feeling,” she answered. “It’s not that I don’t respect your work, sweetheart, it’s that I’ve never understood it. How could I? My life has been full of children, bookkeeping, salesmen, running a restaurant and hotel. How could I know anything of what you do?”

Julio looked up from his plate,  bringing me back from my reverie. “I wish I had my family’s support. It would make such a difference.”

“Give them time,” I smiled. “How could they know anything of what you do? How could they conceive of the gift you’ve been given? A talent that takes you to the core of yourself, allowing you to heal and shine in ways they never imagined. And when you succeed, and you will, you’ll be doing it for all of them, for all the men and women in your bloodline who never knew the joys of freedom.”

Saying Good-bye

I have to let go of an old friend this week and it hurts my heart, a friend that has seen me through 22 years of my life. This friend is my sofa, couch, or settee. 

It was a hot day in August 1989 when I presented my partner, Thom, with a brand new sofa as a birthday gift. It was perfect for our country farmhouse in the Columbia River Gorge and I was thrilled. He was less so. Come to think of it, he was downright disappointed.  (I may have even purchased it with his money.)

“You got me a sofa? For my birthday? You’ve got to be kidding. I don’t want a sofa. You want a sofa. You bought it for you.”  I was silenced by the truth of it. 

Thom was never fond of the sofa. He was not home long enough for one thing, his career as a naturopath, instructor and politician kept him away. But when he was home, that was our spot. We curled up by the woodstove, watched the gold pendulum of the grandfather clock tick away the evening, talked about homeopathy, hemorrhoids or the latest growth on Mrs. Collin’s back.  

My first grandchild Britan was brought home from the hospital in November to nap on that couch, her mom and dad sitting on either side, exhausted and proud. It held Thanksgiving guests, and later serious discussions between my son Clay and I about their decision to move back to Los Angeles, taking Britan with them. The couch held midnight tears and the pain of disconnection that followed. 

Women gathered in my living room for seven years learning psychic development. They found insight, sisterhood and bravery on that couch, our black cat often leaping in and out of their laps. I’ve dropped sticks of incense on the fabric and patched the resulting holes. It’s been my place for watching movies, writing books, and starting each new day.   

My mother, her husband, Joe and Thom’s father, all dead and gone, each reclined there when they visited from afar. Unwanted and unwelcome guests rested there as well, guests whom I cooked for badly and sent away early. My daughter Kristen and I sank into the cushions on week-ends to taste hummus and dream up vegan menu items for a part time catering business. 

When Thom and I separated, the couch went into Susan’s basement until I could find a new life. When money ran out I tired to sell it, but did not succeed.

In 1995, I went to live in the home of a Cherokee Indian named War Eagle, putting my sofa in the spare room, where I slept on it, prayed, meditated and wrote memories. Britan came to visit and cuddled with me in the evenings. She asked if she could sleep with me in my bed. “I’m sorry sweetheart. I have no bed, this couch is my bed.” We made a pallet on the floor.  

When I opened an office in SE Portland, the sofa was carried up flights of stairs to anchor the coming years of truths and confessions, cleansing tears and transformation that followed. It was the vehicle for relaxing into other realms and a place to feel safe and secure.  

A client once used the sofa to distract me from issues he feared. “Do you ever curl up on the couch between sessions and take a little nap?” I told him I did, his question buying him a smile and a little time but no escape. Another afternoon I found a gentleman from Japan had arrived early for his session and fallen fast asleep, his feet propped over the back, recovering from jet lag. Then there was the woman who got up from the couch to counsel me one winter morning, when the pressures of my life broke through my therapist’s veneer. I remember a conservative woman declaring, “Coming to see you is better than doing drugs.” This followed by a young playwright. “You really kicked my self-pitying ass, Karen. Thank you.”  At least one thousand clients have sat on that couch to make peace with themselves and their lives, their honesty, love and intention creating a sacred place, more holy ground then furniture.  

When that office outgrew its usefulness, the sofa was moved to a spare room in the Salmon Street Writing Studio. The doorway was narrow and my furniture would not fit. But it had to fit. The couch was my healing place and I needed it. I called a carpenter to remove the legs. It still wouldn’t budge. The camel back frame was cut by half against his better judgment. “You don’t understand,” I told him. “I have to get this in there!” It was reassembled but never regained its sturdy structure. 

In 2005, I was melting from seeing too many clients, so I found a home in the forest for rest and recuperation. And that tired old couch moved right along with me, supporting my healing as I starred into tall pines and emptiness. When I met my friend Gib, we sat shoulder to shoulder for three months doing sound editing for my audio books. The sofa held our laughter, accomplishment and lively disagreements, as well as sensual meals and sensual pleasures. When my mother died and Gib left, I wept for them both on the cushions of my long time companion.  

A second granddaughter, Isabella, has flown across the length of the couch, turned summersaults, jumped up and down on the cushions, balanced on its reconstructed back, taken naps and used it to support near-perfect headstands. Isabella’s favorite game is playing store. She removes everything from my closet, explaining the virtues of each piece, sells it to me, wraps it and pretends to call a taxi so I can transport it all. I pay her with monopoly money and she gives me deals.  

So, you see what I’m going through? What I’m giving up and letting go of? I’m losing a friend, a witness to my life, my family and the lives of all those who have come for healing. I hope this old girl goes to a good home because I’m sure going to miss her, gonna miss her like crazy.


When I turned fifty, I had a birthday bash. I asked folks to sing their favorite song, write a new one, or read me a much loved poem. Those were the gifts I wanted. I asked them to pretend I had died, and to get up and speak about my life, the way they would talk at my funeral. I wanted to hear what folks were going to say. Otherwise, how would I know? I draped photos from different chapters of my life around my sister Susan’s palatial house, giving folks something to laugh about and a way to focus conversation. There was a fire in the fireplace, friends played fiddle, mandolin and guitar. We ate well. A small bubbly Jewish friend named Sharon was one of the last to leave. I remember her making her way out the front door, her arms heavy with dishes. “I bet you never thought you’d look this good at 50, did you?” I was stunned. Was I supposed to look bad? 

When I lived in The Columbia River Gorge with my friend Tom, we had summer parties on acres of land. Folks hung clothes they no longer wanted on the line to be exchanged for the offerings of others. I hired a caller. We contra danced in long lines, laughing as we swirled and kicked our skirts up. We ate well and smiled openly. We sat on hay bales around an evening fire and munched handfuls of raspberries from the fifty acres that grew in the back field. 

B’lou, (short for Betty Lou, a name she hated) and I used to give all kinds of crazy parties. Our last one was, The God Party. We all came in character, dressed as our overseeing angel and talked about ourselves like we weren’t there. I was Mother Superior and had a delightful evening reprimanding those less perfect with a ruler. B’lou had a costume closet where a pantry used to be, and had turned the dining room into a dance floor with large mirrors and millions of theatrical hats. You were never expected to be yourself when you entered. Do you know how refreshing that can be?

When I turned 55, I asked friends to parade down Salmon Street in their pajamas. Ten women showed up, plus my daughter, granddaughter and a few neighbors. We put ivy in our hair and walked a short mile playing instruments, but it lacked something – a brass section, I think.  

I’ll be 65 on the last day of November; an age I can’t believe belongs to me. I guess there will be no party, because I have no ideas or motivation. I’ve planned a trip to California to visit my granddaughter, Britan, who will be sweet 16, and my son, Clay, who is pushing 40. We share the same birthday season. Then I’ll return, and have a quiet week-end at the coast with my buddy, Susan.

I’ve become solitary and hermit-like in my old age, living in the forest and doing little but working as a healer, teaching, writing and more and more healing work. I’ve also begun doing really dumb things, like searching for the phone while I’m talking on it. And putting on my sunglasses at night, instead of driving glasses, then freaking out believing there is something horribly wrong with my lights. I don’t feel as brave, as tough or as social as I used to. I miss that. But the worst part, is that people I don’t know keep sending me letters about cremation, hearing aids and hospital services. My mother was hang gliding and riding camels until she was 90. Why don’t they send letters encouraging us to do that?

Neville – my view

I used to work in a small studio space near 20th and Hawthorne owned by my eccentric friend, Neville. His ancestral home was next door, taking up most of the city block. When Neville retired from teaching, he decided it was time to experiment with the illegal substances he’d read so much about. He talked freely about his discoveries, taking his professors mind into each expanded reality. 

Roses bloomed full, red and fragrant outside my studio window. As my evening client wrote my check and carefully tore it from her vinyl checkbook, I gazed out the window at Neville. His hands were gloved as he pruned blossoms from the bushes that climbed the wire fence. He’d left shirt and tie behind long ago in favor of loose fitting cottons. His eyes were full of light, an ear-ring dangled from his right lobe and the smile on his face rested satisfied and deep.

I walked my client out the door, down the cobbled path and through the gate. We parted with a hug and words of appreciation.  Then I turned to 70 year old Neville who continued trimming and grinning in his own blissful realm.

What are you doing today, Neville, I asked, enjoying his approach to discovery. Today I’m trying mushrooms, he said, and I’m pleased with the result, very satisfying. I should have done this long ago. Neville’s face shone with round contentment. He was fully present and in the moment without fears, baggage from the past or sorrows.

In that moment, he defined everything I hoped to accomplish with my clients. I found myself envying him. I wanted to trim the roses, I thought. I want to go where he has gone.

Neville performed my wedding ceremony when I lived in The Columbia River Gorge. White flowing robes matched his white flowing hair as he readied himself for our service. Do you need a changing room, I’d asked earlier. No, he replied, I have nothing on under my robe. I prefer it that way, the wind feels so good.

Dear Neville, coming to see me session after session, but always content spiraling in his own unique orbit. His experiments doing more for him than I ever could.

 written 7-9-08