Peggy Sax

Peggy Sax

Michael White was an extraordinary person.  I feel very privileged to have known him not only as my mentor, but as a friend. It is still hard to believe he is no longer here, and that we won’t suddenly hear that he will soon be presenting a workshop at a nearby town. Slowly we are adjusting – and of course his ideas, practices and presence will live on in our lives and work.

On the website, “Re-authoring Teaching,” I  posted several tributes to Michael. In these tributes, people reflect on Michael’s impact on their work, making visible how they carry his spirit in their professional lives and future work: Tributes to Michael.

This includes:

  • A Tribute to Michael by some of his closest friends and colleagues: Shona Russell, Rob Hall, Maggie Carey, Alan Jenkins. Here, Michael’s closest colleagues ackowledge the range of contributions Michael made and  consider how these contributions – especially as an innovator in family therapy-  will continue to encourage and inspire.
  • memories collected by Narrative Practices Adelaide – the centre Michael started just a few months before his death. memorials from Narrative Practices Adelaide,
  • From a British perspective, Jane Speedy and Martin Payne reflect on their rememberances of Michael – his explicited outside-the-box attitude, his great energy and love for Australian life, and his infectious sense of humor. They wrote this for the UK Council of Psychotherapy:
  • David Epston tells stories about his collaborations with Michael over more than 25 years. in his speech, “Remembering Michael White,” In case you don’t already know… David is the co-founder of narrative therapy, Michael’s close colleague and spiritual brother:
  • Alan Jenkins, one of Michael’s closest friends, speaks about Michael’s  influence and significance, which extend well beyond his accomplishments and achievements – his ethical commitments, humanity, curiosity, wonder and delight in the ordinary:
  • “Michael White : 1948-2008″
  • a poignant tribute to Michael White by Rick Maisel. Rick  tells further stories of the influence of Michael’s ideas about power and ethics, and how he treasured friendship.
  • a collection of brief tributes to Michael in the JST article, Saying Hullo Again: Remembering Michael White by Jim Duvall, Laura Beres & Marie-Nathalie Beaudoin (I have a short piece in that article).

I think they really capture some of why so many of us are deeply impacted by his death, and by the commitment to continue our commitment to our work in ways that are congruent to what Michael has taught us.

Here is a beautiful poem that Pam Smith, a woman from Maine, wrote last April, shortly after hearing about Michael’s death. I am going to read it at our gathering. It is so beautiful!

Michael, now that you are absent
But implicit, proofs of your genius and warmth
Are sprouting everywhere

Michael, it’s a new Spring that none of us wanted
To see without you
To build new places on which to stand
To form archipelagos, and then,

Continents of meaning to sustain your work
Discovering better identities
In gardens and stories of possibility, everywhere

Michael, you gave us the new earth
The plowed fields,
The extraordinary seeds
The particular knowledges
The planting maps
All fruits of your hard work

Daily, you handed them to us
Patiently explaining
And now,
It’s early Spring, It’s raining
Time once again for the miracle of growth

–Pam Smith
April, 2008

Sarah: April 4, 2009

Sarah Hughes

Sarah Hughes

I’m feeling contemplative today so I hope you don’t mind me meandering a bit through my thoughts about Michael.  I listened to the Symphony of Sorrowful songs yesterday and its mood touched me deeply.  I’m missing Michael with great intensity -intense love, sadness, joy and gratitude. I’m turning 40 today and thinking about how much of my last decade was influenced by Michael.

I met him when I was 27 and had a new little baby.  I was just starting to distribute the books for Dulwich Centre and Michael was in Vancouver.  We went for a walk around the seawall and I had baby Bailey in a backpack and he was holding on to Michael’s thumb. We had to walk with a funny lopsided gait as Michael did not want to lose the connection to Bailey.  I had no idea who Michael was in the world of family therapy then as I knew so little about that world.  I loved him right away though – his kindness, his attention to Bailey, his joy in being out walking.

As I was working at Yaletown and distributing the books and attending workshops – I soon got to learn a lot about narrative and therapy and so many ideas that captured my attention and imagination.  I relate to Rick’s story about not knowing you were missing something until you found it.  I was so captivated and the ideas just seemed to fit with who I was and gave me some direction in my life.

I then spent 11 years traveling with Michael and attending his workshops in many different countries.  It was so incredible.  I had so many fantastic experiences and opportunities.  Michael always included me in dinners and adventures.  I was so lucky.  And I got to learn so much from him.  At some point I started taking notes at his workshops and now I have notebooks full of amazing words I tried to capture.  I read through them all the time and they keep me connected to him.

It is amazing that so many people have such special connections to him.  How was he able to do that?  I have my special connection deep in my heart and soul.  I know I do my best work when I connect to my internal Michael.  He gives me a sense of seeing new possibilities, not getting caught in the standard ways of thinking or seeing.  He slows me down and allows me see.  He told me one day as we were sitting in the Denver Airport that I would be a fabulous therapist.  I was really unsure that I would ever move past being “the bookseller”  I did not think I was good enough, smart enough etc.  But he gave me confidence by saying my apprehension was one of my best qualities as it kept me respectful and open.  He also said I have great peripheral vision which he said was the best quality a therapist could have.  I treasure these words and return to them often.

Now I am attending my last class today in my master’s program.  I finally feel like I am a therapist.  I needed the degree although my most important learnings I gathered from him – watching him with families, talking to him over Australian chardonnay, re-reading all my lecture notes.  He has given me a career I love and feel fulfills me in so many ways.

He has changed my life and relationships in other ways too.  He was with me through my separation and helped me become so much clearer about what is important to me.  How I do not want to be treated, how I want to treat others.

OK I have to go to school now and celebrate my big day.  But I was glad to have this chance to sit down with my Michael and think about what he would want to tell me on this day.  He would say celebrate life – enjoy the sunshine, love your kids who got up at 6 to make me breakfast and were so excited about it.  I had no idea my 11 year old could make such perfect scrambled eggs!  I am so lucky to have had Michael in my life in such a big way.

Mohammad Arefnia: April 4, 2009

Mohammad Arefnia

Mohammad Arefnia

Hi Sarah,
You are a great therapist!
I will not forget the image of baby Baily holding onto Michael’s finger and the lopsided walk for it to persist. Thank you for sharing that image.
Indeed you are a lucky woman.
And I am lucky to read your reflections.
Happy Birthday!
I read “Saying Hullo” again last night!
I am getting to know Michael even better as I invite him into my life more and more. He was with me through seven therapy sessions. I made new connections with my patients in his spirit, all the while thinking what would he have said. I have learned from him to be a human being in the room and not a “bank screen,” one who responds with all my humanity acknowledging the humanity of the other person in the room as an equal, not being afraid to contain and let be what they consider pathology and celebrating what we both decide to be worthy and inspirational.
Welcome to therapisthood, though you have been one for some time!

Sarah: April 5, 2009

Sarah Hughes

Sarah Hughes

Thank you Mohammad! Indeed I am feeling lucky today as my friend’s and family held a big surprise gathering for me last night.  There was lovely food and stories and some nice ceremonies.  Many of my friends also acknowledged the importance of Michael to me as they knew I was thinking a lot about him – well always – but a lot over the past week. It reminded me again of the importance to me of celebrations, ceremonies and adding some structure to things to maximize meaning.
ANyway – thanks for your lovely message and I am sitting here with my lovely now 13 year old Bailey and I just told him that you are holding onto image.  he liked that.

Kevin Neilsen: April 9, 2009

Kevin Neilsen

Kevin Neilsen

I have been touched reading all the tributes from people who have known and been inspired by Michael’s work.  I was never fortunate enought to meet him personally.  He came to Vermont several times, but I always seemed to have a conflict.  I remembered learning of his death last year and how surprised and shocked I was.

Sarah, I was moved by what you wrote.  How lovely to have had that special connection, his encouragement on becoming a therapist and those early images of him and your new son.  I was struck by your reference to Australian chardonnay, and could imagine you savoring many wonderful memories that will age and mature like a fine glass of wine.

As I sit here waiting for my client to arrive, I hold in my mind the image of Michael riding his bicycle full tilt.  For me it captures a wonderful spirit of joy, enthusiasm and energy, all qualities I associate with him.  Though I have only known Michael through his words in books and articles (and those who have known him), I feel his intellectual curiousity and heart, his willingness to push himself and others, as if he were speeding downhill, smiling all the way.

Peace, Kevin

Bonnie Miller: April 9, 2009:

Bonnie Miller

Bonnie Miller

I am like you, Kevin- never met Michael, planned to do so- and am still suprised at how I can feel a loss of someone only known through his work…

but it is more than that, really- reading what people who knew him write in tribute makes me feel like I did know him- I know of his effect on others, and can see how missed and how valued he was-


Peggy: April 9, 2010

Peggy Sax

Peggy Sax

Kevin, I love this image of Michael  riding his bicycle full tilt, speeding downhill, smiling all the way. It’s striking to me what you capture in your brief words –  Michael’s “wonderful spirit of joy, enthusiasm and energy, his  intellectual curiosity and heart, his willingness to push himself and others. ” Michael gave me/us so much to work/play with -not only practices/maps but linking our conversations to traditions in and beyond the therapy realm. I have a lifetime of study ahead of me. And yet it is the spirit of joy riding down that hill with that big smile that inspires me even more in moment-to-moment life. I want to enjoy living life, moment-to-moment. I want to live life intensely but not so intensely I am having to work too hard at keeping up with all the emergent riches. My life seems to be devoted to living on this edge, discovering this illusive balance. For me, Michael is an inspiration, not only because of that ALIVE curious edgy spirit, but because his presence in my life reminds me of the challenge of balancing personal care with the intensity of living.

Since knowing Michael, I have reconnected with a love for cycling. But I am a cautious cyclist. I push myself more going up the hills than down them. Besides I was never drawn to making go-carts as a kid! That leaves me pondering what brings forth joy and thrill of living in my life. What about you?

Kevin, it’s great having you back with us.

Melissa Bowman: April 10, 2009

Sarah, your reflections and stories of your relationship with Michael moved me.  Thank you for sharing your experiences with us so that the stories live on.

Peggy, I love the way your have begun with a tribute to the ancestors and their “songlines.” I met Michael only once at a training in Toronto years ago but he said something that I will never forget.  He was answering questions about a particular video that he used (I can’t even remember the video).  Participants were asking him something about how he knew what to do and whether there were times when he gets “stuck” too.  I just remember him pausing and reflecting on the question and responding by saying “yeah there are many times when I’m sitting with a client, not sure of what to say or do and I end up wishing there was a Michael White here in the room with me too….”  I LOVED hearing that.  I NEEDED to hear that.  And this is what I remember when I’m feeling overwhelmed or uncertain.

In David Epston’s tribute to Michael he referred to the Narrative conference in Cuba in 2007.  I attended that conference as well and it had a very significant impact on me.  Spending a week in community with other international therapists as well as the Cuban delegates, sharing ideas and building on each other’s excitement for the work was truly an uplifting experience that I will never forget.  It is only now, that I’ve been able to take time to pause and think some more, that I can appreciate, slow down and re-member. Melissa

Daniel Marjason: March 11, 2011


Daniel Marjason

I sent this statement to Dulwhich when I heard Michael was gravely ill:

Messages of support: Many years ago I met a parent who had difficulty stopping her older teenage boys from fighting. I have permission to share this story for professional purposes and this is one hell of a professional purpose. Being a very busy school counsellor I don’t have a lot of time for ongoing counselling of parents so I referred this parent for abuse issues from her previous partner to a women’s health centre. She was heavily medicated and unable to leave the house much or to work, with men in particular. The parent was really giving herself a hard time about not being able to stand up to her sons. I guess I must have done some double listening because I noticed that she never left the room, even though the oldest son was really pretty aggressive toward the younger one and threatened violence and this triggered thoughts about past abuse causing ‘paralising fear.’ I asked why this parent did not leave the room? She replied that she couldn’t leave because she had to protect the youngest. We found that this parent was using an incredible amount of strength to stay in that room and face up to ‘paralising fear.’

The client went to the women’s’ health centre but for some reason kept coming back to the male school counsellor because she preferred the ‘challenging style’ of the counselling. So we continued over a year maybe meeting once a month. The women was able to talk about the beatings she received for not bringing the vegemite home, and to acknowledge the strength that it took to face the ‘paralising fear’ and to work to pacify it’s influence on her life. Many years later this same parent came back to be an outsider witness for another parent who faced abuse. The other parent didn’t turn up but my parent with ‘paralising fear’ did. She had lost an enormous amount of weight. I was forced to compliment her despite the risk of sexist overtones. She had joined a rock and roll dance club and had a boyfriend as well as a job! The medical clinical depression had gone and she was off medication and was very pleased to acknowledge that the school counselling was a significant help! It was because I validated her feelings of abuse within the context of a narrative conversation which drew out the strengths she used to survive and would not accept her depressive condition as the totalising story. Far from burning me out, I was fascinated, if not thoroughly de-centered by this change of story and I came to embrace hard cases where I could go on an adventure with my clients and see change happen, see preferred stories take over people’s lives, see myself inspired by my work, see the human spirit, client and worker alike, free to enjoy conversations about the most difficult matters in the gentle and light, yet powerful and respectful, serious, fun and intelligent spirit of narrative conversations.

Michael, I am deeply saddened at the news that you are unwell. I guess I feel a sense of loss and aloneness but also a sense of determination in that the torch you shared will stay with me as with many. I remember over ten years ago sitting next to you in Mellow Bath, you had flown in to give a talk and we were talking over lunch about the aboriginal injustice. The next year you turned up again with aboriginal projects in abundance to show!

The people I have met in narrative include Sheridan Linnell, whom I have done a few years consultation with, Ian Hanslow and Deanne Dale whom I have known from Gunnedoo days and lately David Newman and others in NSW narrative networks. These relationships have meant so much to me. Of course Cheryl and David D and Virginina. The conferences at Adelaide and elsewhere have been the best. I just wish you well in getting over this health problem and thank you for the love you shared in such a humble way, if that’s the right word, such a dedicated way, an inspiring way, an intelligent way a grounded way, in the history of thought and of humanity.

Dear Michael’s family. Thank you for this opportunity to share my sadness with you in this time. I want you to know that Michael has been so close to my heart for a long time really, I have had his books by my side, I have a sloppy Jo with Adelaide on it, I have friends I met in narrative circles and of course in my day to day work I strive to have the clarity of Michael White. I pray for the safety of Michael and that we can have him with us some more, but if that is not to be the case then I pray that his generous spirit strikes us all with even a fraction of the magic that he shows is possible and that we strive to do justice to that enormous gift.

Peggy: March 28, 2009.

Peggy Sax

Peggy Sax

Dan, this is a beautiful tribute to Michael. Michael clearly lives on in you and through your work. Reading your vivid description, I became very aware that we are approaching the 3rd anniversary of Michael’s death (April 4). Maybe your tribute will inspire others in this study group to share memories and reflections on Michael’s legacy. Thank you. Peggy