Planting Season

A Therapist Searches for a Simpler Life

Planting Season

This article first appeared in the May/June 2006 issue.

I took a leap of faith this morning and hung a birdfeeder in my backyard. This may not seem like much of a risk, but since the last two birdfeeders I installed were forcibly deinstalled by bears (who bit the feeders clean in half before gobbling the contents and leaving hefty “calling cards” on my lawn), I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Later today, I’ll attend the weekly Rotary lunch, where I’ll hang out with realtors, bankers, funeral directors, and other local businessfolks. I think chicken and waffles are on the menu. I’ll do some low-key networking for clients over lunch, but I also plan to ask people about an item I saw in Saturday’s paper: there’s to be a rattlesnake hunt in our county next weekend, which apparently serves as an occasion for family reunions. I find myself both appalled and fascinated: Do people here really gather in family groups to hunt down rattlesnakes? What do they do afterward? In any case, the snake hunt is clearly a major event here. The local paper put the announcement in a large box to make sure it got the attention it deserved.

I’m still finding my way here. Not long ago, I moved from Chicago to rural central Pennsylvania, a land of endless mountains girding the Susquehanna River. I live and practice in Lock Haven, a community of 10,000 that’s home to Old Order Amish, fervent deer hunters, and students at a small, state-affiliated university. I’ve settled in the reddest part of a red state (with a bit of blue around the edges), in a community where I’m the only mental health professional in full-time private practice. I’m a liberal, feminist, eclectic psychologist with psychodynamic leanings. What in the world am I doing here!?

City of Angles

Nine years ago, when I completed my Ph.D. in counseling psychology, I had no interest in building a practice or a life in a small town. Instead, I was exhilarated to land a position in the counseling center of the Art Institute of Chicago. I loved doing therapy with my students, young artists who tended to be on good speaking terms with their inner lives. In my free time I sampled big-city life, wandering happily through the Field Museum of Natural History to gape at Sue, the largest-ever Tyrannosaurus rex, or to marvel at the masks and pottery at the Mexican Fine Arts Center. One of my favorite rituals involved nabbing last-minute tickets to hear the Chicago Symphony from the nosebleed section, and afterward heading for Russian Tea Time, where I plunked misshapen lumps of brown sugar into the house tea, a heady blend of Darjeeling and Black Currant. Walking down streets and browsing in shops, I loved hearing the musical sounds of Spanish and Vietnamese and other, even more mysterious, languages.

But beneath my delight in these discoveries, something gnawed at me. During the 45-minute El ride back to my apartment in Evanston, I’d catch myself leaning tensely against the window, shielding myself from any contact with my seatmate. There were evenings I’d keep my eyes shut for the entire ride. On the worst days, I could barely tolerate the sounds of the train, the voices of fellow riders, or the hulking buildings that blurred past. One daily moment helped–seeing “my” tree flash by. Standing in the backyard of an otherwise neglected-looking building near Wrigley Field, it blossomed outrageously pink in spring, and in summer, it sheltered nesting birds. Whenever I saw it, my breathing slowed a bit.

I thought that perhaps I was stressed out by my job, where student requests for counseling services always seemed to outstrip the center’s sparse resources. So I began to take walks in quiet places. A particular path along Lake Michigan was one of my favorite routes. Yet, while I loved the lake’s ever-changing colors, it seemed, somehow, to be the wrong shape. It felt too flat, although, of course, a lake is meant to be flat. Except for the buildings, everything in Chicago seemed flat. Or sharp edged. Walking through the city, I was often aware of feeling somehow exposed, assailable, as though my skin might be missing a vital outer layer.

During breaks in my workday, I frequently sought refuge at the Art Institute. I particularly liked to sit in one small, dark gallery in the institute’s Asian art section, where giant wooden pillars stood in perfect order, like idealized trees. Kimonos and ancient pottery gleamed from display cases, and few people wandered in. One day, I found myself crying in that room, so hard that I had to retreat to the ladies room to wash my face before returning to work. As I hurried back to the counseling center, slightly late for my next appointment, I knew that something had to change.

Maybe I needed to buy a home in the city, I thought, to give me a sense of comfort and shelter. But when I started looking at condos, I was horrified: one-bedrooms started at $189,000 (this was five years ago), and that price tag got you a dark, basement unit with radiators hanging from the ceiling. I did the math and realized that there was no way I could afford a decent home here on my salary. I began to sit alone in my apartment in the evenings, wondering why my life felt so out of joint. My friends here seemed happy enough. What was wrong with me? I began to sink into depression.

A Place with Curves

Near Christmas of that year, I visited Chris, my dearest friend from graduate school. I was seeking simple comfort, a bit of respite from my deepening unease. Driving out to her home in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, I drank in the sight of the trees and hills along Interstate 80. Coming through the mountain cut and watching the valley open out below me, I saw the orderly Amish farmlands and the unfettered curve of the Alleghenies. Something relaxed inside me. It was as though my ribs had widened to allow more space for my breath and heart.

As Chris and I walked around the town, I noticed that even strangers met my eye and smiled. In Chicago, I’d learned never to make eye contact, and to suspect anyone who looked directly at me. I began to walk alongside Chris with my head up. I saw children’s faces, rolling curls of mountains, and clouds scudding along a wintry blue sky. Later Chris and I sat in the living room of her log home and drank tea while her husband practiced bagpipes downstairs. We talked about my work and hers, her daughter’s new horse, and her restorative morning walks in the neighboring woods. She knew all of her neighbors by name; she even knew their dogs by name.

After a bit, we moved out onto Chris’s deck so that her Weimaraner could roam the backyard. Waiting for the moonrise over the mountain, I realized with a start that by living under city lights, I hadn’t experienced a dark night for a very long time. I hadn’t seen so many stars in years; I could even see the faint cluster of the Pleiades. Closing my eyes, I said softly, “My heart feels at home here.”

Half-joking, Chris responded, “Maybe you should move here.”

After a moment, I said, “Yes, I think I will.”

My colleagues, friends, and family thought I’d lost my mind. Suddenly I was announcing plans to leave a steady, rewarding, benefits-paying job in Chicago and a rich community of colleagues and friends for unknown territory–central Pennsylvania, no less. Moreover, I was leaving a full-time job to jump to, well, no certain job at all, only the possibility of a temporary, sabbatical-replacement gig at Lock Haven University. My mother worried: “What will you do if your temporary job doesn’t work out?” Friends fumed: “Isn’t central Pennsylvania where rednecks live?” Joe, the director of my counseling center, sat me down in his office. “This seems like a step backward, rather than forward,” he said gently.

I didn’t know how to explain it. I believed that I wasn’t moving backward at all, but rather toward something, something I could feel but not quite articulate. I realized that whether or not I could “make it” in the big city–whether I could manage the stress or afford a home–wasn’t really the point. I knew I could make a life in Chicago. I’d already been making a life. It just wasn’t the life I wanted.

The best I could do was to tell my Chicago colleagues and friends that I wanted to live in a place with curves. I wanted to be someplace where shades of green and blue created the landscape, not the muted grays and browns of Chicago’s right-angle, man-made streets. My friends nodded uncertainly. How to explain that I wanted to spend time walking hills and smelling wood smoke in the air? That I wanted a real home, not a box inside a building that towered above the earth?

And so, on a hot day in July, I drove my used Toyota Camry from the shores of Lake Michigan across three states into central Pennsylvania. My father was riding shotgun and two cranky cats occupied the back seat. We’d been the first customers at Judy’s Bakery in Evanston at 6:00 that morning. I was moving into an apartment I’d never seen, and I still didn’t have a job for sure.

On my first night in Lock Haven, I stayed with Chris and tried to sleep on her daughter’s bottom bunk. My cats prowled the room, trying to squeeze under the bed. I heard my dad tossing and turning on an old futon upstairs. Tears started to slide into my ears. My whole life was about to change. It was already changing, very fast, and I didn’t know how to do any of it. I felt nauseous with fear.

Struggling to Take Hold

The next morning, Chris and my father helped me move into my apartment. After they left, I knew I needed to keep busy. I wrote up a list of needed household supplies and made a pilgrimage to the local Wal-Mart (my very first Wal-Mart experience, actually). I pulled into the parking lot, automatically attaching the “club” to my steering wheel. As I emerged from my Camry, I saw that the car next to me not only had its doors unlocked, but all four windows open. I was stunned, almost disbelieving. Then a thought arose: What if I didn’t need to protect myself with so much energy here? As the weeks went on, the “club” found its way into the back seat, then into the trunk, and then, finally, into storage in the garage.

Meanwhile, I interviewed at the local university and started my sabbatical- replacement position in August. A few months into the job, I was told that the school hoped to offer me a permanent counseling position. Buoyed by that possibility, I dared to begin looking for a house. One Sunday afternoon, I toured a three-bedroom, pale-yellow colonial situated on a hill just two blocks from Chris’s home. Gazing through the master bedroom window, I saw red and amber trees bursting from the mountain ridge. On Halloween, after signing stacks of terrifying paperwork, I owned my first home.

I marveled at how my new life was unfolding. One of my new neighbors took me walking along a nearby creek, pointing out native wildflowers. I was humbled by her assumption that I shared her knowledge of the Latin names for the plants we encountered, and ashamed to realize that I was startled by her sophistication. I chatted about high school football and Platonic philosophy with Leo, the owner of the Italian deli downtown, and enjoyed his thick vegetable soups. I found a church community in town. On my first visit, a choir member heard me singing in the congregation and introduced me to the organist, who was thrilled to hear that I could read music and play the piano. I began to make friends.
After a year in my temporary counseling position, I got the news: the center couldn’t afford to create a permanent job for me after all. I was stunned–in the back of my mind, I’d been counting on that long-term, full-time position. How would I continue to pay the mortgage? Or eat, for that matter?

Scrambling for new ways to support myself, I opened a part-time private practice. This was a stretch for me: I’d never imagined myself as a solo practitioner. Then I got a job teaching psychology at the university, part-time. I discovered I had a knack for teaching, and my hopes lifted again, especially when a psychology professor retired and I was asked to fill in full-time. Perhaps this new temporary position would expand to a permanent, full-time, decent-paying job.

But on the afternoon that the department chair told me that they’d be looking for a developmental psychologist rather than a clinician-professor like me, I walked back into my office, sat down at my desk, and cried. How could I have given up the security of my job in Chicago? What was I thinking when I moved across three states to what amounted to a foreign country, with no real prospects?

Deeply discouraged, I began to haunt the APA Monitor website, looking at counseling center and teaching positions. I read job notices for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; if I lived and worked there, I told myself, I could still visit here. Of course, I could always go back to Chicago. I felt my throat tighten. Taking a break from my computer search, I gazed out the windows of my home office. Reflexively, I noted some blue jays noisily rousting out a crow in the woods across the street. I thought about the mountains rising up outside my bedroom window. I thought of the people who were becoming my friends, and the deep peace I felt at night. How could I give any of this up?

I decided, at that moment, to make an enormous leap of faith: I’d earn my own livelihood. Entirely. I’d crank up my tiny private practice to full-time.
Swallowing my pride, I asked my parents for a loan to tide me over for the first several months. I struggled to trim my budget. I decided that I didn’t need digital cable, fresh paint for the downstairs, or new clothes for a while. I tried not to think about all the books I wanted to buy, wishing I could join a 12-step group for addicts. Seeking out more clients, I advertised in the local paper and wrote letters to local physicians and chiropractors. But only a few new clients trickled in. As I bent over my bank statements in the evenings, I saw that I was using too much of my savings to pay everyday bills. The numbers chilled me. I saw myself taking a job at Wal-Mart, stocking the cat-food shelves.

Then one afternoon while shopping at the grocery store, I struck up a conversation with a neighbor, who eventually asked me about my work. When I told her I was a psychotherapist, she looked alarmed. “Do you give people brain drugs?” she wanted to know.

Then it hit me: You’re not in Chicago anymore. I realized that I’d never succeed as a therapist here unless I loosened up my customary boundaries between my professional and personal selves. The fact was, most people here had no experience with psychotherapy. The woman in the grocery store hadn’t been the only one to misunderstand the work I did. Many folks I’d spoken with assumed that I made my clients lie down on a couch, or that I hypnotized them. They saw psychotherapy as something that only “crazy people” needed. Hadn’t I been listening?

So I started over. I began to talk about therapy, and about my practice, with local ministers and priests. When I played piano for the downtown Art Walk, I put a stack of my business cards in plain view. I brought business cards, flyers, and homemade baked goods to local doctors, including my own. I chatted about my work to Leo at the deli, and to proprietors of the local diner and used record store. I did something my Chicago self couldn’t have imagined in her wildest dreams: I joined the Rotary Club and presented a talk on “the creative arts in psychotherapy.”

Slowly, I began to get referrals from doctors and social services folks. I began to get curious phone calls from locals, people who’d met me at the Art Walk, or who’d heard about me from the record store guy, or had gotten my name from their minister. My client hours began to grow.

But the most fruitful, and unexpected, community connection I’ve made has been via my alter ego, “Auntie Lynn.” Every other Friday, I read stories to small children at the local coffee shop. I became Auntie Lynn almost by accident. I was chatting with Jen, the coffee shop owner, about her interest in starting a program for children. I mentioned that I collected children’s picture books.

Suddenly I heard myself saying, “Maybe I could read the kids stories!”

Despite some initial hesitation–what would people think about a professional therapist getting down on the floor with toddlers?–these story hours have become high points in my life. Moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas (or “paps,” as grandfathers are often called around here) arrive with their little ones and sip coffee and tea while the kids munch snacks. Between reading stories and wiping sticky faces, I do some discreet networking.
Recently, I had a brief, quiet conversation with a mom who’d called me earlier to say that she wanted to bring her daughter to Auntie Lynn not just for the stories, but so that she could meet me in person. “Then maybe I’ll get up the nerve to make an appointment to see you,” she’d told me. “My doctor recommended you, but I’ve never met a therapist before.” I’d warned her on the phone, though, that my Dr. Bruner self isn’t exactly the same as my Auntie Lynn persona, and we laughed together at the oddly comforting image of a therapist whom you could hire to read you stories and feed you a snack.

It astonishes me that I’m doing something that’s so much fun, allows me to offer something to my community, and helps me expand my practice all at the same time. I can’t imagine even thinking up such a program back in Chicago–or if I had, I can’t imagine that it would ever have flown.

Dissonance and Pleasure

I still struggle at times. Money remains tight. I’m always seeking new referrals. I still have fish-out-of-water moments, like the afternoon recently when I was browsing at the local Blockbuster and overheard a mom telling her son, “You can’t get that movie. Preacher said it has bad people in it.” The video was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

And sometimes, I miss city life. I miss the cultural diversity of Chicago, its endless, ever-shifting carnival of food, art, music, and people. In these parts, the closest Thai place is an hour’s drive, and for someone who once considered Tom Yum soup a staple, this is an issue.
But I’ve had the pleasure lately of tracking the courting and nesting rituals of a pair of huge, pileated woodpeckers. Every time that I see them fly over my backyard, looking astonishingly large and prehistoric, I’m thrilled. Now that I’m bravely (or foolishly) putting up a suet feeder in the yard again, I’m looking forward to seeing downy woodpeckers and flickers. I’m willing to risk the bears.

As I attach the feeder to my clothesline and inspect the yard for signs of the first, tentative crocuses, it occurs to me that everything seems to have room to grow here. Lock Haven, the little town that everyone said was wrong for me, gives me what I need to live in tune with my own, truest rhythms–rhythms that awaken in the green curve of a hill, the deep silence of a country night. Standing in my own backyard, looking toward the gray haze of leafless trees on the mountain ridge, I breathe in the air with its faint tinge of wood smoke. I know that I am planted here, and that I am growing, too.

Lynn Bruner

Dr. Lynn Bruner, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who practices in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania.