Sitting on the Vermont shoreline facing west, I can see the blue-gray of the Adirondack Mountains. I am always most comfortable when I can clearly orient myself using my body as a human compass: north, south, east, or west, with my body as the anchoring point. Behind me and slightly southeast, I can feel the comforting presence of the Green Mountains rising over the city. I have always been fascinated by the illusive and transitory quality of the play of light on the large lake, and today the lake water mirrors a medium cerulean blue, cloudless sky. It has been a bitter cold winter, with April and May only slightly warmer. The warm June sun rests on me and pleasures my shedding winter skin.

Shading my eyes from the sun, I turn and search the sloped brown-green landscape above the lake for my friend and colleague, Betty. We have been friends for about eighteen years - a “friendship of our later years”, as we often refer to it. We planned, as we often did during the winter months, to sit quietly over a light breakfast and review our work for the day, a favorite ritual of ours.

But today is different. I have made a decision that is sure to impact both of our lives, one way or another, and I need my friend’s wisdom and support. I spot Betty coming down the winding, narrow footpath through the stand of maple trees. As she joins me, both of us sit quietly for a moment, taking in the sheer beauty and peacefulness of the new day. An experienced cellist, I have a practiced intuition about timing and pacing. I hold my secret thoughts for a few minutes, the beauty and serenity of the day needing our first attention. Then I begin.

“Betty, I hope you’ll hear me out for a few minutes. I’ve been thinking about this for some time now. I want to write a book about the women I work with. I have these wonderful stories about their lives--you know, why they came to therapy, what we did together, what happened there for them, and where they all are now. Actually, I’ve already asked three women if they’d like to collaborate with me, contribute their stories, and the response was very positive. The exciting thing is that each of the women was of the opinion that going public would contribute further to her own healing, that is, in the sharing of it with other women.”

Betty looks at me incredulously: “You know, you have a very, very short memory. Have you forgotten last year? Isn’t it enough that you got that terrible case of shingles doing that article? You had to meet that damn deadline, and it almost killed you.”

“I know, but I want the challenge of doing a creative project.”

I know my friend’s first reactions are filled with wisdom, and her passionate response has its own history. It was Betty who was witness to the painful rash that ran the length of my right arm and trunk. She was the person who stayed with me for days and nights, keeping the ice bags filled to ease the excruciating pain. And it was Betty who proofread the professional paper and helped me to fine-tune my own thinking. She is correct. The deadline for the article was almost a killer. And how many times had we worked together with other women about reducing the stresses in our lives that are often self-imposed? But still my desire and needs are there.

“And have you forgotten your dissertation days? When we went into hibernation for days and days on end at the cabin? Your anxieties and fears? Your stress and my stress? My asthma, your colon? The boxes and boxes of books and notes—working all day and night? I don’t want to go through another time like that, ever!” Betty is relentless.

There is history impacting heavily on this moment. Betty, a Harvard graduate, trained philosopher and educator, long ago decided to, as she put it, “put the study of ideas at the center of my life.” A revered university scholar, she taught for twenty-five years. I, sixty-four, a cellist, a nurse, a wife, and a mother of three adult children, had a long hiatus of nineteen years between my undergraduate education and my doctoral degree. Seven years ago, satisfied with what she had accomplished in her professional life, Betty decided on an early retirement, to do “my inner work,” as she called it, after many years of a satisfying public life. I, on the other hand, often felt that I still had not yet fully expressed myself professionally and that I had precious little time left to do this.

“Isn’t the work you’re doing with the women good enough, satisfying enough? I wish I had your skills as a therapist. You see the good results of your work every day. What more do you need? You’ve already done the creative work. I don’t understand why you feel you now have to write about it at this point in your life. Why do you need to repeat what you do, again, publicly? What’s this really all about? You have to examine this. Look deeply within yourself. What’s going on here?”

I had looked within myself. There were times when I myself wondered if I would ever be saturated and satisfied with my life. My friend is so damn articulate. “Look. It would be easy to brush this off as my striving Western ego, wanting public recognition and approval, never satisfied with what I have already done, but I feel there is much more going on here. There is something in me needing completion. Do you understand? It’s not about striving for its own sake. I feel it’s my creative energies needing expression here. I know that it’s difficult for you to understand this. You’ve done it all professionally: You’ve had the recognition, honors, and a brass plaque on the university walls with your name on it. You’ve influenced thousands of students. You feel satisfied. Yes, I do feel gratified that I have been able to make a difference in some women’s lives, but something needs completion in me.”

Betty continues to challenge me. “You, of all people, know that my teaching was never about the public recognition. It was about ideas, the big ideas, and the freeing of my students’ minds. When will you be satisfied professionally? Do you know? What will it take? You’re sixty-four. How much more time do you want to give to something like this in your life? Suppose you write the book and it never gets published? Then what? Will you feel you are a failure? Thousands of good books never get published, you know. How many lifetimes do you think you have?”

I wrap my invisible cloak around myself a little more. This is difficult for me. Then, softening my friend with humor, I answer, “Lifetimes? In the Eastern or Western cosmologies? Maybe being sixty-four does have something to do with why I want to do this. And, about my age. I’m in good company. Other women have done it. Colette, May Sarton, and Kathe Kollwitz all developed themselves in their later years—after fifty. I’ve suddenly come to realize that if I don’t do it now, I may never get to do it.”

Betty is quick with her own data: “And did you know that of the four women writers, the Brontes, Austen, and Eliot, not one had children? and two were unmarried? Do you forget the stress on your marriage during your doctoral studies and the thesis writing?”

“No, I haven’t forgotten, but I realize now that my husband and adult children will tell their own stories about me, but I want to tell my own story in my own way.”

“Then why are you writing about the women you work with?”

“Because our stories are bound together by the process of therapy itself.”

In these brief moments of conversation my friend has raised all of my own worst fears and doubts. If it were not for Betty, I probably would never have completed my dissertation. Blocked by my own inexperience and self-doubts, my sense of self became so eroded during marriage and child rearing that I had become immobilized, stuck, two and a half years into my dissertation writing, not trusting my own mind. The specter of writing and collaborating again I knew had surely raised Betty’s own fears about the difficulties and stresses of those days fourteen years ago. Had it been that long? What happened to all of those hours that passed into days that passed into weeks and months and years?

Just as the conversation is picking up more of a crescendo and is headed into a faster tempo, a young, one-legged light gray sparrow with brown markings on its wings tentatively hops onto the round breakfast table. For a few minutes both of us share the sheer delight of feeding the hungry creature some of our leftover breakfast crumbs. We experience the wonderful capacity to move from a very intense conversation, to the joys of an existential moment with nature, the capacity to laugh and to play.

Even though I know my friend is speaking from a place of love, there is no doubt I am wounded and disappointed by her reaction. I know she wants to protect me, but I wonder what I will do if I can’t rely on Betty’s sharp thinking and breadth of knowledge to bounce off my own nascent ideas. The give and take between us is something I have taken for granted.

Sitting back against the chair, trying to compose my thoughts and avoiding my friend’s eyes, I push forward. “Betty, there’s something else as well. I really feel a deep gratitude to all the women who have been my teachers. I feel the need to repay their love and attention to me during my doctoral studies. Those women were very committed to me. They shared stories from their own lives. They opened up their personal libraries. They spent long hours in dialogue with me, often in their own homes. They helped to shape my current thinking. I had never experienced anything like that before. I don’t know what your doctoral committee was like at Harvard, although I think I can guess, but to have a committee of feminist scholars was a profound experience for me. And for this to happen in the late seventies...” My friend interrupts me.

“You forget. I was on your committee. But don’t deny your own part of that happening. You are the one who designed the women’s studies program when there was none anywhere at the doctoral level. You are the one who brought these women together. You know, you have a bad habit of negating your own part in things. You’ve got to watch that.”

“Thanks. I needed to hear that. But just think if they weren’t there, and if you weren’t there, I never would have arrived at this place in my life. I feel an obligation here. I feel I owe something, as well, to the women with whom I work who have trusted me and shared their life stories with me in their therapy.”

“What do you owe them? Have they asked you to write this book? I don’t think so. What is it that you think you owe these women?”

“I don’t owe them anything, but I believe I have a responsibility, especially at my age, as an older woman, to speak up, to tell my own truths. And, just think of this, if I don’t tell my story, then I don’t tell their stories either.”

“I don’t understand. You can do a case presentation about a woman without telling your own story.”

“That’s the whole point. It wouldn’t be honest. I would never be telling how we actually worked together in the therapy process. The emphasis would be very different. I have been thinking about what is it that my profession does with our life stories. We are told under the guise of confidentiality that they are to be put away, locked up in our file cabinets. I think there is some conspiracy going on here, to keep our stories hidden away. I don’t think it’s an intentional conspiracy, but the consequences are the same. Our rich conversations, the many hours we have spent thinking, are hidden away in locked file cabinets. Whose interests does this really serve? Whose interests does it not serve?

“I’m not saying confidentiality isn’t an important requirement of our work, but what if a woman decides she wants to make her story public? The therapy encounter is about two life stories, not one, and often involves many other women as well.

“I want to write more in the traditions of Grace Paley, Bell Hooks, Jamaica Kincaid, Alice Walker, and others who refused to keep the boundaries of public and private in their work. I want to follow the tradition of those women who wrote protest literature. I want to protest the way our therapy work is often reported or written about.”

“How are you planning this? How would you go about it?”

Aha. Maybe I have sparked her interest a little. “It would be a mix of my own working notebooks and journals, the women’s own journal notes, poetry, artwork and very importantly the verbatim notes I have kept of each woman’s work in the professional record.”

“This sounds like a huge task, taking many, many therapy sessions from the therapy record and going beyond it. It sounds like you would be creating a therapy text of some kind.”

“Yes. Exactly. The rich imagery, the poetics of the process is totally thrown out, disregarded in the usual record. Yet, our work rests on this imagery.”

Betty sits now in her own stream of consciousness. I play the silences. Finally, she joins me.

“I really need to think about the implications of this. There is much here to think about in what you just described. I can see you’ve been thinking a great deal about this. About your other thoughts, I can really understand what you’re saying your motivation for wanting to write. I’m just thinking about the time and commitment that it will take, and if this is what you want to do with this time of your life.”

We are both silent now. It is clear that we need time and space to process privately what has just taken place. Neither of us likes to disappoint the other, and neither is willing to let anything take over the mood of the exquisite summer morning by the lake. The earlier morning stillness is broken by the voices of the summer tourists now gathered in small groups at the lakefront waiting for the 9:45 incoming ferry. The screeching sound of a flock of hungry seagulls looking for a quick meal ends our reverie. I check my wristwatch. “It’s getting too busy for me here. What about you?”

As we stand up to leave, the outgoing ferry horn gives off a loud blast as the ferry heads around the breakwater, and the added movement of the incoming ferry gliding into the slip transforms the expansive blue mirror into broken patterns of shimmering blues and mauve. I am again lost in the beauty of color and light reflected on the water. Betty touches my arm. “I heard everything you said. You must do it, then. I want you to know, I won’t let you down.”

The path has been cleared, and this journal begun, as we head back to the office.