live black and white photo of joni mitchell performing on stage

How Running Away Can Help Us Return

Song featured in this blog:
Hejira (live performance by Joni Mitchell, Shadows and Light, 1979)

Coping with this crazy life—and feeling sane—comes partly from accepting how impossible it all is. This is the kind of paradox that makes ‘achieving’ mental health so difficult. As Rumi put it, “Who makes these changes? I shoot an arrow right. It lands left.”

Joni Mitchell understood this quite well at the age of 30, and it was likely her visit to Colorado in the mid-1970s that helped it sink in. Joni met up in Colorado with Chögyam Trungpa, who founded Naropa University in Boulder, and Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, after touring with Bob Dylan, and while doing some cross-country road trips.

She wrote an album during that time, and called it Hejira, an approximation of an Arabic word for exodus, or as she put it: “running away with honor.” She had just broken up with her boyfriend. There’s a paradox in that idea of running away with honor, so we may as well start here. In therapy, how might we talk about running away with honor? By accepting how impossible it all is. This may be a literal walking away from something or someone, but it also can be a turning away from some internal persistence. At the end of Rumi’s poem, he says, “I should be suspicious of what I want.”

Sometimes running away is just plain avoidance and irresponsibility; but other times we can run away from something inside of us with honor, by pivoting to a new goal or a forgotten value. Sometimes the way to survive, or the path to one’s integrity lies in the challenge to be more authentic about who we really are, the way that Orion Mountain Dreamer said it: “I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself; if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul.” Running away can be a victory; and taking our leave can make it possible to remain present. Or as the late Sensei Alvin Stein used to say, “The first rule of Ninjutsu is: don’t be there.” Being stripped of what we thought we needed or where we were headed can help us become more fully ourselves.

     Barn’s burnt down.
     Now I can see the moon.

                  — Mizuta Masahide

There are several versions of the title song, Hejira, but for me, the best is the version on Mitchell’s live album, Shadows and Light (1979). This amazing performance features Jaco Pastorius on bass and Michael Brecker on sax, and they transform the song into something that hits on a whole other level. So, let’s see what Joni can show us about the paradox of giving up.

     I’m traveling in some vehicle
     I’m sitting in some cafe
     A defector from the petty wars
     That shell shock love away.

Already, she’s hitting us with a simultaneous movement and stillness. The passage of time becomes foggy on the road; each minute blurs into the next. We may only vaguely remember the journey, and it may all be over before we know it. That’s where this song is going from the very beginning. A defector? Yes, this is her hejira. And these “petty wars” in relationships are still big enough to shell shock (traumatize) us. Isn’t that like a lot of people who come into therapy? They feel as if the details of their fights sound trivial compared with how overwhelmed or destroyed they feel. But this is how it goes for all of us. The events seem small, but the pain hits us so hard.

     There’s comfort in melancholy
     When there’s no need to explain
     It’s just as natural as the weather
     In this moody sky today.

Welcome to therapy. Like Nicole Kidman’s cheesy line in the AMC theaters ad: “Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this.” There certainly can be comfort in melancholy—when we are allowed to feel it rather than being told to explain it, or being pushed to get rid of it. It is comforting that our feelings get to be here, just as they are. Mr. Rogers was right. Our sad feelings are just as natural as the gray weather outside, so why can’t we have them and feel the aching beauty or forlornness of this sadness? It can be lonely, and it also can be therapeutic.

     In our possessive coupling
     So much could not be expressed
     So now I am returning to myself
     These things that you and I suppressed.

It often happens that people coming out of a long relationship, as Joni Mitchell had just ended her relationship with John Guerin, feel like they’re finally returning to themselves, having lost themselves along the way. Ironically, the last name “Guerin” means warrior or fighter, and it’s basically the name of a character (Guerrino) in an old fairy tale I translated about a boy on a hejira, escaping something scary, and trying to grow up and find his place in the world. In the fairy tale, Guerrino only survives through a relationship he forges with a stranger amidst the insanity around him. It’s tricky: to truly give ourselves to a relationship means giving up some of who we would have been, what we would have done, with anyone else. It might help us survive, or it might kill us. But with each unique partner, coupling means some different parts of myself come out and other parts go underground. It’s a sadness that comes with making any commitment, whether a life partner or where to have dinner tonight: saying yes to one thing means saying no to so many other things. And that’s just how it is. Even a joyous choice means a bundle of lost opportunities.  

     I see something of myself in everyone
     Right at this moment of the world
     As snow gathers like bolts of lace
     Waltzing on a bridal girl.

One of the things that therapy can help with is the experience of profound universality: I see something of myself in everyone. Being able to realize and feel that I’m not the only one who has lost a love, who has felt stupid, who has struggled with my body, who has been terrified or overwhelmed this way, helps us feel like we belong in the family of humanity. There are others like me because there are parts of me in everyone and parts of everyone in me. And yet, that next line about the snow: this line makes me ache so deeply each time I hear it. There is something so beautiful, so mournfully sad to me about the hush and cold of a snowy day falling on a “bridal girl.”   

     You know it never has been easy
     Whether you do or you do not resign
     Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
     Or stick to some straighter line.

There’s no trick to making life easy. It never has been easy. The grass is always greener. The other line at the grocery store always moves faster. No, the joke really is that there is no faster line and there is no greener grass. It’s just hard. And this is punctuated sometimes with joy, beauty, love, hilarity, until the next round of tragedy. Whether we are wild or stable, creative or practical, whether a saint or a sinner, we are often alone, often struggling. So whenever possible, let’s cry and laugh together when we can find people who are willing to cry and laugh.

     Now here’s a man and a woman sitting on a rock
     They’re either going to thaw out or freeze
     Listen:
     Strains of Michael Brecker
     Coming through the snow and the pinewood trees.

A tipping point. A fraught moment. In this moment, we are neither frozen nor thawed. We are right in between but can’t stay in this moment forever. It’s going to have to land one way or another. One of the paradoxes in therapy is that when we develop an ability not to need a solid “black and white” position of knowing or certainty, things ease and we become more stable. When we feel anxious and need to get to one position or another, we may fool ourselves that we have achieved a solid position when we have only acted out our insecurities. On a deeper level of ourselves, we are not stable if we achieve it by denying what is truly going on: we will have to leave that place, too. It’s an oddly satisfying experience to be able to stay and feel the stability that comes from not needing the stability as much (of course, this has its limits: we can only take so much instability for so long). This takes a lot of practice. We don’t know which way those two people are going to go, but if we can stay still and not-knowing, we can hear the faint music coming through the snow and the trees.

     I’m porous with travel fever
     But I’m so glad to be on my own
     Still somehow the slightest touch of a stranger
     Sets up a trembling in my bones.

Sometimes, one’s traveling companions (on the road, or in life) can make us yearn for solitude, and then that aloneness can make us much more sensitive to how powerful the briefest moment of intimacy can feel—almost electric, affecting our whole body. This is the paradox of needing aloneness to become more sensitive to connection, and how the wrong kind of connection can make us yearn for aloneness. This can also happen in a session with a therapist: sometimes in moments it can feel lonely in therapy. The therapist is missing the mark today and that deepens the despair, or the therapist says just the right thing in a way that shoots right through you, and everything goes wavy for a minute while you absorb an insight.

     I know no one’s going to show me everything
     We come and go unknown
     Each of us so deep and so superficial
     Between the forceps and the stone.

This may be my favorite stanza. To me, this is the crux of the story (and in therapy, and in life): We yearn for an instruction manual, to make sense of it all. That’s what we need from parents, from professors, from therapists, from religious leaders. But they are all struggling to make sense of life, too. And all of us are silly, all of us are vain, all of us are broken, all of us are exalted. We can emphasize some of these parts, and hide or deny other parts, but we are both deep and superficial (just ask Chance the gardener). And on top of it all: there is no one who really knows us fully, ever. And we don’t even get to fully know ourselves.

I was in an intensive group-therapy training with Elliott Zeisel just before the pandemic, and had a moment when I expressed curiosity about how he was feeling toward me in the training group. I found myself in an odd blank space where I could not sense any sort of feeling at all coming from him. I suppose I wanted in that moment to be known. He answered with a little smile, “It’s none of your business.” It made me laugh and feel sad at the same time. We come and go unknown. Ultimately, we want to be known, to be felt, to have a sense of how we fit in. He was helping me tolerate and stay with this mystery. We can never close the gap completely; ultimately, we are alone. And it reminded me of how my patients may feel in our sessions—never fully knowing how I feel about them and sometimes feeling a familiar loneliness in that: a bit confused and sad, but hopefully still cared for at the same time.

     I looked at the granite markers
     Those tributes to finality, to eternity
     Then I looked at myself here
     Chicken scratching for my immortality.

Perhaps this is Joni’s reference to the paradox of trying to write these songs and poems to leave something permanent of herself here on the planet. As Ernest Becker reminds us, these immortality projects are just yearnings. We still wind up under these granite markers or inside these urns. But that’s not quite right, either. The granite markers are tributes to our finality, and how we live beyond death is in the feelings and memories of others about us.

     In the church they light the candles
     And the wax rolls down like tearsZ
     There’s the hope and the hopelessness
     I’ve witnessed all these years.

In this version of the song, we get to hear Jaco Pastorius imitate the sliding of wax droplets down a candle with his fretless bass. We light the candles as a gesture of hope, and the candles stand there and cry. We are the candles, our children are the candles, the hospitals, the war zones, and the celebrations are the candles alight with humanity and grace and comfort, and also crying and grieving and overcome by pain or a hidden disgrace.

     We’re only particles of change, I know, I know
     Orbiting around the sun
     But it’s hard to have that point of view
     When I’m always hung up on someone.

Again, we are back to how huge our relationships feel and how ultimately fleeting or insignificant life is. Milan Kundera wrote about “The unbearable lightness of being.” There is a paradox between the heaviness or earthiness of death, of sorrow, of being “bound and tied to” a relationship as Mitchell wrote in her original lyric for that last line. Lightness and freedom come from not caring, flitting without commitment to any one purpose, person, or path. Yet, lightness can also bring about a sense of meaninglessness and despair, and heaviness or earthiness can bring about a sense of belonging and feeling rooted. Mitchell is dealing with the negative side of both lightness (insignificance) and boundedness (stuckness) here, but they each have their positive sides that can be forgotten in a bad mood or a bad decade.

     White flags of winter chimneys
     Waving truce against the moon
     In the mirrors of a modern bank
     From the window of my hotel room.

Corporate architecture mediates the sight of smoke wafting from chimneys (she sees the chimneys in the mirrors of the bank, and sees the mirrored panels through the plate glass of her hotel window). She is writing about something sensed but she is two steps removed from it. Yet, perhaps sharing this detachment has its own beauty. This is something that therapists often experience: even in the grittiness or the flawed or alienated landscapes of our lives, being able to share this with someone else and express it more fully to feel it together can feel gratifying and relieving.

     I’m traveling in some vehicle
     I’m sitting in some cafe
     A defector from the petty wars

Until love sucks me back that way We are full-circle, back to the start of the song. Dr. Joni Mitchell has been reflecting on aloneness, connection, the paradoxes of life and the vague flowing of time, and that our journey (our cross-country drive, our fame, life on Earth), is temporary—until we are pulled inexorably into Love once again.

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