ONCE UPON A TIME (PART ONE)

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What follows is (Part 1 of) a story about stories and the wisdom of a six-year-old girl, written back when I was working my first of two internships for my master’s degree.

I’d been spending time with Sarah every week for several months because, although smart as all get out, she was failing to thrive in the classroom. Her teacher reported that she seemed to float in a fog.

We knew her parents were in the midst of an antagonistic separation. When I met her in October, kindergarteners had just begun to learn from my supervisor, the school social worker, various methods for solving small problems on their own. At the end of an otherwise uneventful first session, Sarah asked me what to do “if you have a big problem” and identified that problem as “gwownups fighting.”

I saw her question, naturally, as an indication of her needs, and I assumed that sorting through her feelings about whatever she heard and saw at home would constitute our work together. That proved not to be the case, however. Every week, as elsewhere, she floated around the guidance office, which was large and admittedly full of distractions: a sand table, a dollhouse, puppets, games, a whiteboard with markers lined up and ready for use. Sarah seemed far more interested in, say, drawing “a potato staring at a mountain,” than in talking about her feelings. Was it my approach that was lacking?

Despite having an excellent vocabulary, Sarah often chose not to reply to my scaling question with words; when I asked her to rate her day from 1 (the worst day ever) to 5 (a truly great day), she would walk to the whiteboard to write the answer, then draw faces around it. Her playfulness, for me, lacked transparency, and each silly face, while age appropriate, seemed to take us further away from our purpose in being there. It seemed like there was nothing to catch hold of. I became preoccupied with my apparent inability to connect with her—and as a result, failed to join her where she was.

Sarah often asked me to play hangman, seeming attracted to guessing games. (“Oh, the irony,” I thought, while she drew the gallows.) Play can be a powerful form of therapy, yes, but hangman? Eager to succeed with every client, there were many times when I questioned the value of our meetings—whether our relationship was actually serving her. I discussed those feelings with my supervisor, but aware of her parents’ difficulties, we never quite reached the point of giving up.

One Monday morning in January, I asked Sarah, as usual, how she was feeling on the scale of 1 to 5, and beside her number, she made what looked like four hash marks. “What’s that?” I asked, struck by the unusual drawing. “Scratch marks from a cat,” I was told.

In a flash, an instinct (or desperation) to follow what seemed different, what seemed new, took hold of me. “A cat!” I said. “What can you tell me about that cat? What’s the story of that cat? Maybe I could write it down for you!” “Okay…” she said and followed me to the table, leaning on it and prompting me: “Chapter One.” She watched me write my own contribution: “Once upon a time.” That phrase had always held magic for me, but with Sarah, I was to experience its power as I never had before.

In that first chapter, I recorded that the cat was named Sarah, liked to play, had sharp claws that she used to scratch things, scared her classmates (which made her sad), and was the most beloved member of her family, more so than her baby sibling, who got sick on the bed and made their mother angry.

Six more chapters followed in succeeding weeks. Each time we composed one, my young client watched me take dictation, speaking word by word so I could keep up.

This is what I learned: Sarah the Cat was lonely. She thought her claws scared her classmates; she didn’t know how to make friends. She had no one to play with at school, and it wasn’t any better at home. Though half-hidden in other details to begin with, loneliness was her theme—a fact that became more explicit as time went on.

Finally one day I commented, when our bleakest chapter was done, “I have to say, I’m feeling sad for Sarah the Cat, and I would like to spend some time thinking about things that might help her.” She fixed her wide-eyed gaze on me. “Why do you want to help her?” she wanted to know. I kept to the world we’d created. “Because I care about Sarah the Cat. I know she’s just a character in a story, but I care about her.” After the slightest pause, she said, “Because it’s really me.”

Tears smarted in my eyes, but I blinked them back and replied as if I were surprised by the fact, not moved by her owning of it. “Is it you?” I asked. “You’re Sarah the Cat?” I added in a quieter voice, “Well, then, it matters even more.”

To Be Continued.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading.

 

 

THE CLASP OF THE NECKLACE

Rainbow wall, August

 

My appointment with Tess was, unusually, at 9AM—right as the morning sunlight was angling through my prism in the window. “You’re just in time to see my pet rainbows,” I said. (I think of them that way sometimes.)

“Pet rainbows!” She ran over to kneel on the chair and held her finger beneath a hovering splotch of visible spectrum, as though holding aloft a perching butterfly. I leaned in to look with her. “It must like you,” I said.

Fanciful notions flow rather freely from me now; a few years ago, less so. I thought I might like working with kids, but felt shy and apprehensive around them. The world seemed to have changed so much since I was five, six, seven—kids seemed to be exposed to such sophisticated things. Would what had mattered to me at their age even register with them? I volunteered in a kindergarten, to put myself to the test, to see if I could find ways to relate.

One day the teacher left me in charge while she ran some errands around the school. My job as a glorified babysitter was to read Jack and the Beanstalk to the class. I did so with all the gusto I could muster, then found myself at “The End,” with no sign of the teacher returning. Without further direction, I needed to buy time. So I improvised: “Let’s be seeds,” I said. “Let’s make ourselves really small, and then we can grow up up up!”

The children immediately crouched and tucked into themselves. “Sprinkle us!” Gillian cried, and joy bloomed in me. It has continued to bloom and grow through my counseling work. Sometimes I feel as though I could climb to the clouds on its flourishing stalk.

While I like to write in celebration, though, there are umpteen moments when I get things wrong—sometimes so wrong that it’s painful. Like the time I noticed that the clasp of Tess’s necklace had slid ’round to the front. “Make a wish,” I’d said, out of habit.

Tess had been in foster care roughly one year. Her parents had neglected her and her siblings while tending their addictions; her father would die of an overdose within the week of those three words. Make a wish.

I had let myself become ungrounded in my life—busy and neglectful of contemplation.  I wasn’t fully in the moment with a little girl who needed every ounce of presence she could get. Now I carry the memory of Tess picking up that remark, which I’d dropped so casually, and holding it close. My sobering summons back to the moment came when she fixed her eyes on me. She trusted me. She asked, “Will it come true?”

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading.

ROSA RUGOSA

 

Rosa Rugosa

 

There seems to be a particularly deep peace in the early morning after a summer holiday night. Twenty minutes of fireworks, costing goodness knows how much, the sparkles beguiling but the clouds of colored smoke reminding me, unfortunately, of bomb blasts in distant countries—I was glad to wake to birdsong at dawn.

Walking, I came upon some metaphorical evidence of the humming life within all seemingly still things, charged like electrons, active as the heart while drowsing alongside one’s beloved: the determined industry of bees.

Working with families in a community mental health agency, one of the greatest obstacles to overcome is absolutism, especially as it usually skews negative. Whether or not people begin by believing the condemning things they say, in saying them, they’re helping to enact them. You hurt me? You’re a menace. You betrayed me? You’re a cheat. Feelings about behaviors blow up into characterizations; to surmount them is a Sisyphean task. And I’m not talking about couples counseling—parents express these feelings toward their children! Their learning, growing offspring who are, primarily, shaped by their home environments and the nurturing they get or don’t get!

A great part of a therapist’s work, in such situations, is to solicit alternatives, shades of gray, moments of success—which typically involves demonstrating patience, modeling genuine curiosity, making judicious observations, and celebrating the tiniest of shifts. As a historically catastrophic thinker, I’m often moved and inspired by this process. If in February, Angelique and her mother were fighting bitterly, and they’re still fighting in March, it’s nonetheless notable if their body language has changed. They sat apart, now they’re sitting closer; their legs were crossed away from each other; now they’re almost touching. There’s hope in that.

It was a big shrubby rose bush that caught my attention today. Almost all the flowers were long gone, revealing green rose hips, and the few remaining blossoms were tattered and shattered. Nonetheless, for the solid hour encompassing my walk—I passed it twice—bumble bees were diving in and out, clearly determined to harvest all the pollen they could, their padded back legs proof of their reward.

Whilesoever there’s a blossom, however damaged, there’s work to be done—a treasure hunt that makes possible all the blossoms to come.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please click the “Follow” button, accompanied by a plus-sign, in the lower right corner of your computer screen. Thank you for reading.

PRIDE

Ectoplasmic rainbow

“Did you tell your counselor what you said to me in the car?”

“No,” said Mercedes, with a smirk followed by a giggle.

“You should tell her!” her mom exclaimed.

“No, you tell her!”

“You don’t want to tell her?”

“No, I want to hear you.”

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Mercedes had come to services as a high-strung nine-year-old with separation anxiety. After eight months’ worth of escapades designed to develop her confidence, she was ten years old and seemed pretty near ready to command the universe. (Our fast-slow games and yarn telegraph in the hallway provided unintended ancillary outcomes in the smiles of amused and bemused colleagues passing by.)

As her parents described it to me, they had felt hostage to their daughter’s need for constant reassurance. She’d required accompaniment to her classroom each morning and a detailed outline in her planner regarding who would pick her up after school, when, and how. Her mother included a cheering note in Mercedes’s packed lunch each day. Mercedes couldn’t be left home alone for even a handful of minutes. Breaches of protocol led to tearful fits.

All that changed, and more. I’ll try to write another time about our work, much of it disguised as silliness. Notable here is her parents’ support of their daughter’s therapeutic homework, and Mercedes’s willingness to engage in same. More than anything I did, that made the difference. Deep breathing practice was added to her bedtime routine, along with a recitation of three things that made her happy. Three things every night without fail, that was the only rule—they could repeat or vary endlessly, and be substantial, like visiting grandparents, or lighter, like an extra-yummy breakfast.

Notable also, on the part of her parents, was their extraordinary ability to identify and celebrate positive change. Too many parents with whom I’ve worked have goal posts that constantly recede, such that nothing their kids do is ever enough. As an adult, I find that approach profoundly disheartening; how much worse must their kids feel? When Mercedes volunteered to take half the grocery list and split off from her dad in the store to find things—one of the early positive signs—the confidence and independence she expressed got the recognition they deserved. Blessings upon you, parents of Mercedes!

My inspiration to write about this family this particular week, however, came from another form of recognition, during our last visit. First, I presented Mercedes with the book of skills and stories she had created bit by bit. In the back, there was a letter from me. When we met, she’d chosen a skeleton key from a set of images, as the one representing something about what had brought her to counseling. “I hope when I’m done, I’ll have the key to my worries,” she’d said. Ceremonially, I presented her with an actual skeleton key, which I’d chosen the summer before from a tool chest at a flea market, with an inkling that it would serve a purpose someday.

In reviewing her accomplishments to date, Mercedes’s mom mentioned forgetting a note in the usual packed lunch; it wasn’t, to her surprise, the end of the world. A ruined batch of birthday cupcakes had Mercedes reassuring her mom, “It’s not worth getting upset about.” She could enter school by herself, and take the bus in the afternoon, looking after herself at home for an hour or two. She even seemed to enjoy her time alone. But the most striking detail shared that day, for me, had to do with her seemingly growing assertion of selfhood.

So what had happened in the car? Apparently her mom had made some reference to Mercedes growing up, how one day she’d be bringing boys home and taking her dad to a whole new level of stress. And apparently Mercedes had rejoined from the back seat, “What if I like girls?”

Mercedes giggled again, hearing me hear it.

“And what did I say?” asked her mom. Her lovely, fond, invested, teasing, caring, and committed mom, who had gamely partaken of all our adventures, including holding an end of red yarn while her daughter backed away unrolling the ball of it. “Are you still there?” I encouraged her to ask her mom every step or so, tugging the telegraph line, while her mother answered, “Still here,” tugging in reply. Eventually Mercedes rounded a corner and kept up an unspoken communication—out of sight, on her own, but still connected. We talked afterward about the metaphor of that—how our invisible connection to those we love might look, if we could see it, like that red yarn. Securely held while giving and receiving.

About her daughter possibly being gay, her mother turned the beam of her smile from Mercedes to me and back: “I told her that would be just fine with us.”

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please click the “Follow” button, accompanied by a plus-sign, in the lower right corner of your computer screen. Thank you for reading. I was greatly inspired, in my work with this client, by Playful Parenting and The Opposite of Worry, by Lawrence J. Cohen. My deepest condolences to all who have lost their loved ones to violent crimes, including hate crimes.

PAPIER-MACHE, IN TWO PARTS

This story starts at my inner-city parochial school, where supplies were so sparse that at one point we were sharing a single box of construction paper amongst grades Pre-K through 8. I can still recall my pride upon being chosen by Mrs. Z to leave my 1st grade classroom and walk down the grand black-tiled hall to request the box from another teacher—head held high in my state of importance, I fervently hoped to be witnessed.

What my school lacked in resources, it made up for amply in spirit, thanks in no small part to the cultural influence of the Spanish-speaking families in our parish. The Sisters who ran things, all Caucasian, embraced those families and honored Our Lady of Guadalupe. Looking back from this distance, in a culturally hostile hour, I admire the welcome offered by administrators who would have first come to know the neighborhood when it was all Polish, before the sugar skulls of the Day of the Dead bedecked the shelves of the shabby nearby bakery. A local woman was brought in to teach us Spanish hymns. Most thrilling were the piñatas.

Preparing for an all-school festival, each class worked together at long tables in the basement, soaking strips of newspaper in gummy flour paste and laying them bubbled and buckling over balloons. Smoothed, dried, painted, and strung up in the school gym—a magical transformation—they bobbed as each member of each class, taking turns, got to leverage one blind-folded swing, until a spill of candy hit the floor.

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The story continues with Cybil, 14, who was hospitalized several times for suicidality before she came to the agency seeking services. I liked her instantly, which made it relatively easy to build the rapport that is crucial with any client, but perhaps especially with teens; she had a mordant wit and a sensitive heart, both of which provided points of connection. One evening early on she interrupted herself and looked up from her mandala, colored pencil poised, and asked, tremulously, “You know I’m not doing this for attention, right?” It was already clear she had heard that accusation many times before.

Thanks to Cybil’s engagement in session and commitment to her therapeutic homework, within several months, she had stopped cutting—then, later, purging. Much of our work, though, still lay ahead. Ahead, and below.

In ways beyond my ken, I’m sure the speculated hard inner core and molten outer core of the Earth make all life possible; but the hard inner core of pain and molten outer core of anger, beneath a crust of scars and mantle of “behaviors,” almost cost Cybil hers. She told me that it wasn’t so much that she didn’t want to talk about things, as that she didn’t know where to start.

Reception at the agency had a vestigial practice of printing visit slips, despite the transition to computerized record-keeping. Several clients were aware, when they turned them over to me, that I put them in a file marked “To Shred.” As she and her mother prepared to leave one night, Cybil handed me hers: “Oh, here, do you want this for your file?”

“Sure,” I replied, “unless you’d like to keep it for yours.”

“I’ll be able to wallpaper my room with them pretty soon.”

Her mother and I exchanged quick looks; she seemed to hear what I did. All that stigma, writ large in Cybil’s life. “Why wallpaper?” asked her mother. “How about papier-mâché?”

“Yes!”—I seized on that. “What about a piñata?” Cybil liked candy, and she deserved a celebration. Transformation for transformation. “You could fill it with sweet things and baubles!” I imagined—I hope we three collectively imagined—a jaunty silk scarf tied above her fine nose and wide smile.

“I like that,” she said. Her mom agreed.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please click the “Follow” button, accompanied by a plus-sign, in the lower right corner of your computer screen.

 

 

A COUNTERVAILING MAGIC

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Last evening I was running some errands in town when the owner of a tiny used-and-antiquarian bookstore, bald in the style of a sea captain, flagged me down: he had a couple somethings I’d asked for months prior. So I went in, and settled into a narrow armchair, losing track of time until I realized that his open sign hadn’t been up, and I was likely keeping him from his tea.

He waved off my apology; he was staying late, as it happened. A young man would be bringing his girlfriend by, to guide her toward a certain book with a carved-out center containing—yes—a ring. Once said young man had proposed, the owner would clear a space for a small, well-appointed table, and a local restaurant would provide a catered meal. (I didn’t ask, but imagined a lone violinist there as well.)

Hearing that, surrounded by a warren of shelves all but obscuring the ancient blue wallpaper, with a peach-faced lovebird singing in the other room— “Alas, in a cage,” said the bookseller—was an instance of countervailing magic, the current that runs against the ills of the world. Such encounters—magic is always an encounter in some form or another—restore me to joy.

There is a great deal of pain involved in working with children. My first client, as an intern, was a little girl whose mother punched her in the nose and took an ax to her father’s car; she couldn’t concentrate in class and wept for the loss of an animal she’d loved, plus everything else, tears that shook her frame. We did a sensory inventory one day, and the wind spoke to her and told her to find her own safe place in the landscape at home; she let a pond remind her of peace, and the sun shining through a leafy trellis bring her hope. Magic: her dear, intelligent face, as we meditated at a picnic table, beneath the tall tall trees and a vibrant sky. May it carry her forth.

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THE TROUBLE WITH UNICORNS

I hadn’t seen Tess in three months, and the first thing she did was take an inventory of my office: “That’s new, that’s new, that’s new, that’s new, that’s new, that’s new, that’s new.” Pointing to sand table, miniatures, artwork on the walls.

I don’t think she missed a thing, except the fluorescent-green pothos cascading splashily from the window ledge. In that way—pointing, naming—she reestablished her relationship with my space and perhaps, by extension, me. Indeed, many things had changed, herself included—she was that much taller, that much smarter, and, happily, seemingly, that much more confident.

Unaltered was my delight in her elfin presence. So earnestly did she press one of her gold-foil chocolate coins upon me, a holiday treat; so sweetly did she show off her new dress, pink and purple, patterned all around with unicorns. I smiled to see it and sang its praises. She seemed happy, and I was glad. And then suddenly I was both there, with her, and far away, in an unidentified garment factory, drearily lit, poorly ventilated, and about the furthest thing from magic.

The trouble with unicorns is not just the trouble with unicorns, but with cartoon pandas and big green trolls and talking sponges in boxer shorts. It’s the trouble with cheap t-shirts emblazoned with “Love,” denim trousers bearing swirls of silver circles—stickers meant, I guess, to look like studs. It’s the trouble with our clothes in general, as well as our toys, our tools, and those devices one might use to read this blog that count as both. Whose labor feeds our restless appetites? What working conditions support the built-in obsolescence of trends? Unicorns as symbols have had a far longer life than most corporate creations; but they, also, have become commodities. Our “magic” is, too often, predicated on misery.

I mostly try to write in tight vignettes because expanding my scope makes me self-conscious, and the more editorial my voice, the more I question its worth in a crowded media world. There are any number of people out there speaking to my values—human rights, fair trade, environmental protections, and restorative justice, to name a few—and I feel that my gift is rather to experience and communicate the depths to be found within moments in time.

At least, that’s what I aspire to do. Thus, the profundity, for me, when Tess created a scene—a vignette of her own—from my miniatures. Six months into foster care, it wasn’t clear whether she’d be placed into a home shared by her siblings; it was even less clear whether she’d be returned to her biological parents one day.

There were babies in Tess’s scene, but no parents visible. I asked where they were, and she said they slept somewhere else. “The babies can live in the doghouse for now,” she said. Her case worker, who’d brought her, intercepted my meaningful look with one of her own. My hopes for Tess intensified—a safe and stable home with brothers and sisters close; parents who get clean and make up for lost time; a secure identity as she grows. But also this: that her new dress wasn’t made by a girl her age. That no one else’s unhappiness fed her little bit of needed joy.

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Names of clients are always changed. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please click the “Follow” button, accompanied by a plus-sign, in the lower right corner of your computer screen. For information on supporting reduced consumerism in kids, check out the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.