THIS ABOVE ALL

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3

 

As the year draws to a close, I find myself thinking a lot about the meaning of integrity. I call to mind those spiral-bound books with split pages that divide cartoon animals in thirds, such that they can be reorganized into mythical beasts: the head of an ostrich on the torso of an ape above the legs of a cheetah. Sure, they might be amusing to contemplate. Yes, they might have strange powers. But they are creatures at odds with themselves. So it is, I think, with those of us whose thoughts/words, feelings/values, and actions don’t align; ultimately our lives aren’t all that they could be. I don’t conceive of integrity as something we possess so much as something we are or strive to become: whole in our human lives.

Now, misalignment, at least in the cultures I know, seems to be the norm. Cogito, ergo sum? Thanks but no thanks, Descartes. I personally do not identify as a brain atop a body. Having said that, my experience of trauma certainly knocked me into disparate parts; trauma does that to people. And it can take courage to contend with that. So I’d like to dedicate this brief, philosophical year-end post to the kids I met in 2015 who, through beautiful insight and determination, came to counseling in search of their own integrity. The young man who looked deeply into my eyes and admitted to beating up his stepfather, triggered by a reminder of his own childhood abuse. The teens who cut themselves and suffered hailstorms of accusations, when they needed love and self-esteem. The little girl who wanted counseling, whose father said to me in her presence, “Counseling is for the simple-minded and the weak”—a girl who had the astonishing inner strength to tell him, simply and directly, she was angry. So many kids, so many stories. And because all grownups have stories, too, and were kids themselves, I dedicate this as well to them—even though I sometimes find them, I’ll admit, unbearable.

Another confession: every time I write, every sentence I write, tempts me to digress. One example in this case might be some reflections on the difficulty of giving and receiving love without integrity as defined above. There is so much to say, about this experience of learning in the present moment! Sometimes I worry about committing myself in writing to this or that idea, when language necessarily imposes limits, whereas my thoughts can feel infinite. And for every thought I have, I hear faint echoes, surging toward me, of things that people might say back, an audible tidal wave of affirmations, negations, opinions, reactions. In short, I get overwhelmed—by myself, by the world. Still, it seems a worthy project, and I look forward to sharing more stories in 2016. Meanwhile, Happy New Year.

Know Thyself.

AND THEN, NOT SO FUNNY

Horses, plants

 

The first thing she did was break my Japanese kaleidoscope—jabbed her finger through the viewing window. From the threshold of my office, she’d homed in on it, as if she’d known it would be there, on my table by the schefflera, awaiting destruction. A pixie with a tornado’s wake, she tore around my office, snatching things up and demanding “What’s this?” before casting them aside and moving on. She was ten, with a three-year-old’s lack of restraint. Her mother did not stir to intervene in any way, just sat heavily and watched me, wearing an inscrutable smile.

I had some information to relay and gather, it being our first visit, although I knew a bit from the intake report and a colleague on the Youth and Family team. The family had been receiving functional support services in their home for some time, to help with behavior management, but the FSS worker felt therapy would be appropriate as well. Danielle, the pixie, was suspicioned to have some trauma in her history. If she did, that might explain her wild energy, although she was being medicated for ADHD, as all too many kids are. The FSS worker had told me she was a sweetheart, if a handful, and would likely want to spend our time playing dolls.

At a certain point, I interrupted my intro to let Danielle know that although there weren’t a lot of rules in my office, there were a few important rules, and one of them had to do with gentleness. “I’m going to show you how I don’t like things to be handled, and how I do like them to be handled.” First, I picked up a toy and threw it on the ground. “You will not see me do that again,” I said, “and I don’t want to see it either. This is how I like things to be handled.” I picked the same toy up and set it down gently. “Can you show me the gentle way to handle things?” And she did—from that moment on, she was careful with everything she touched, and I made sure to thank her and heap praise upon her.

Danielle offered to teach me a card game in vogue called Trash. I accepted, and we arranged ourselves “crisscross applesauce” on the floor. She gave me the rules haphazardly, clarifying as she went along, as in, “Oh, and if that happens, you lose your turn.” It felt as though maybe she was just making up rules to suit her, which, if that was the case, was a) hard to follow, and b) not fun for me. So, again, I asked for what I wanted: “Could you please tell me all the rules first before we play? I’m feeling confused.” And she did! With perfect sense and order! We got on like a house afire then and played cards till the end of our session. I invited her mom to join us, but she just kept smiling and shook her head. Soon enough, our time was up, and I confirmed our next appointment for the same time next week. I was on Cloud 9: attention deficits can be hard for me, but we were off to a good start!

Then, the next week, no Danielle. I made an outreach call and got voicemail. No reply to my message, so I called again later that week, expressing concern. No reply again. I called a week later, then wrote a letter—nothing. Finally, I ran into her FSS worker and asked him to look into it. This is what he came back and told me: the mom didn’t want therapy for her daughter, or at least, not with me. “All she did was play with her,” the mom reportedly said.

Now at the risk of sounding prideful, is that all I did? Danielle and I built rapport. We engaged in behavior modification through clear communication and positive reinforcement. She got the chance to take the lead, and led beautifully, and we started in on addressing unmet needs. (The FSS worker still talks about the time the two of them played Trivial Pursuit—how Danielle didn’t even understand the questions, let alone know the answers, but appeared to be having the time of her life because someone was playing with her.) Perhaps these matters are subtle to the untrained eye. But I didn’t even merit a conversation? The funny story I told recently, about the mom who worried my voice was too calm when we booked our first appointment? That mom gave me a chance, and we got on splendidly.

My supervisor opined that the mother felt uncomfortable seeing Danielle behave like a different child; perhaps I had achieved something that she, as the parent, never had. He felt that she probably saw her daughter through a certain lens and was unwilling to have that lens so radically changed. Indeed, she might not have wanted to feel compelled to look at herself. I can’t profess to know if any of that was the case—but I can say this: I wanted to work with Danielle, and there are few things in life that upset me more than golden opportunities missed, especially when it’s not a matter of chance, but one of willful denial.

“FRIENDZONED,” A FEW WORDS ABOUT TIME AND LOVE

Kyocera

 

I often feel that relatively little separates me from the children and young people with whom I’ve worked. I mean, at heart, where it matters. Certainly there is a yawning cultural chasm, given (just for example) my lack of interest in social media, my preference for hardbound books over digital platforms, and my cellphone preserved from the early aughts, whose only graphic is the charming and apropos glyph of a sun when a text arrives. (Emoti-what? Meme who? #Huh?)

Relating to kids’ imaginations and emotions tends to come to me pretty naturally, for the most part. I don’t have to stretch to remember how significant small things can feel, and how near events can continue to seem, after the fact. I form strong associations, such as the patch of sidewalk in my neighborhood that will now always be the place where I found, while walking at dawn, a dead bat—its tiny, perfect, brown-velvet face as composed and intelligent as the features of a sleeping newborn person.

It’s easy for me to forget, however, how different time feels to those at different stages of their lives, and when I’m recollected, it’s often abrupt, like a dunk under water, à la that old carnival game. Where you’re sitting, just smiling at the crowd, on a plank that gives way if someone cranks a pitch and hits the target?

When I lent my ancient cellphone to Willa to use as a timer for the doll she sent “to the naughty chair for ten minutes, one for each year of her life!”—well, I could scarcely comprehend her fidgety impatience. The smirking, pig-tailed, yarn-haired blond poppet went scot-free in less than two! Ten must’ve seemed monumental.

Then there was the occasion when a sixteen-year-old boy helpfully explained the “rule of thumb” (an unintentional pun on his part, as you’ll see) that “if you’re texting a girl and don’t ask her out within 48 hours, you automatically get friendzoned.” Said boy was heartbroken because he lost the love of his life (whom he had known a month) after three weeks of dating. Three weeks later, he still pined for her.

Now, I purposely chose not to put quotes around a certain phrase (or phrases) in the preceding sentences, though it seems they made his parents roll their eyes, because I don’t want to belittle his inaugural experience of romantic bonding and attachment. For the same reason, I called nothing he said into question, at least not during that first confessional conversation, and later only delicately. The strength and longevity of his feelings were for him to discover, hopefully under happier circumstances. Therapy—however personally valuable it may prove to be for the therapist, with its many revelations—is not about the therapist, it’s about the client.

Not to mention, trying to explain what it’s like to be older, to someone younger? How love can endure and discover new strength? And yet, simultaneously, how wasted time is gone—at least in this carbon-dated dimension—forever? Forget it; mere words. An abstract concept in a concrete world. So I’ll end with what I couldn’t say to him: The famed urgency of youth has nothing on the urgency of aging. Peace can come, but so can a painful awareness.

Perhaps one’s sense of time is just a matter of proportion, an emotional theory of relativity underpinning and shaping our lives. From my current vantage, three weeks of pining seems like a walk in the park. But I can imagine a day seeming an eon to me again.

WHEN EAST IS WEST

Angry Is Happier Than Sad

She was born addicted to methadone, and her mother kept using, then landed in jail. Her father had his own problems, but he got custody. Now she was a wild-eyed eight-year-old, whip-smart but lacking integration. This was to be our second visit, and I felt from our first meeting, it might turn into tangent upon tangent, attention scattered to the four winds. I wanted a glimpse of her heart.

So I asked her to show it to me, with an expressive art activity. You think of all the different things you’re feeling—either just in that particular moment, or about a given subject—and choose a color to represent each, making a key, as on a map. Then you fill a heart shape with each color, in proportion to how much of that feeling is present in you. It’s a simple exercise that can be quite profound for people of all ages. I used kid-friendly language to describe it.

As I said, she was plenty smart, but she just looked at me. “Is this too complicated?” I asked. Affirmative: “Can I just color the heart?” It was a golden opportunity to practice giving up my agenda. As a wise teacher once said in a workshop I took, “Just because it’s valuable, doesn’t mean it’s helpful.” While I watched, she colored the heart with a kind of fan pattern. She looked at it with pride a few moments. Then she drew an extra outline around the heart. Decorative, I thought.

Then she split the outline between blue on the left and purple on the right. She was wearing a “mood ring” she’d just gotten from a dentist’s office, and according to her reading of this ring, purple meant happy and blue meant sad. She wrote the words out adjacent to their territories.

Again, she surveyed her work. She took a red marker and started making arrows all around, pointing inward to the heart. “So no one misses it,” she explained. Next, with shallow breaths of childish concentration, she tried to recall the way a compass looks. North and South she put right where they belonged, but she accidentally swapped East and West.

Oh, well—I wasn’t about to correct her. The drawing of the arrows was the start of a narration, as she talked her way through what she was doing, four yellow directions drawn at the points of a cross. When her compass was done, she looked at me and announced, “We live in the sad part.”

“We do?” I was startled by the revelation, literally “out of the blue.” All I’d seen from her so far, by way of feelings, were the ugly looks she shot her dad and a premature attachment to me.

“Yes, sad,” she said with conviction.

“What makes us sad?” I began fishing for more. “Why are we so sad?”

“Because we live in the sad part.”

I tried again, from the opposite direction. “What could make us happier?”

She grabbed the red marker and made a box around West (aka, East), scribbling furiously to fill it in. “There,” she said.

“What’s that?” I was thinking Love.

“Angry,” she said firmly, as if she heard my thoughts.

“It’s angry. Why is it angry?” I was genuinely puzzled. Then she gave it to me, that glimpse:

“Because angry’s happier than sad.”

+

Is it just me, or did this girl give voice to the world’s history of crossed signals and missed connections? When sad becomes angry in an effort to be happy, or at least “happier than sad,” East does indeed become West. And if the owner of the feelings doesn’t draw the compass—give the map its key—confusion reigns, and never the twain shall meet.

She wanted to hang the drawing on my art clothesline, and she chose the spot. Then she requested that I point it out to anyone else who came in, forever after. Writing this short essay is the best way I know how. I feel as though that experience now will never be far from my thoughts.

 

DOWN DEEP

Lemon 3

 

The following vignette is drawn from my time volunteering in a kindergarten.

P, five years old, was normally well behaved—self-regulating, in clinical parlance. His classmate C, whom the teacher considered too young for school, might interrupt proceedings by pounding on his tiny chest and belting out a Tarzan imitation; P, sturdier and more mature, knew how to listen. He stayed “in the zone.”

On this particular day, though, something had gotten into him. At story time, sitting on the fringes, P turned his back to the teacher and kicked his shoes repeatedly against the carpet, beating a sullen tattoo. Several times I spoke to him about this. “It’s easier to concentrate when your eyes are on the teacher,” I whispered. I put a guiding hand on his shoulder. He obliged by turning his body partway toward the rest of the group but kept his eyes to the ground.

This behavior was so aberrant for P as to raise a question in my mind. But the question faded as the day progressed, each activity succeeding the one before, the writing of names and the cutting of paper with round-tipped scissors. Snack time, with its boasts and juice boxes, came and went. The declarations of one child inevitably stirred up an overlapping chorus of voices, all seeking attention. Consequently, P’s strange behavior slipped from my thoughts.

Later in the day, the teacher asked me to work one-on-one with the kids, on a color project, and I found myself across from P, at the world’s smallest work table, holding out a yellow crayon and asking him to draw a lemon.

He wouldn’t take the crayon. “I can’t,” he said. Snub-nosed with freckles, he stuck out his lip. Again, I was surprised. “Oh, I’m pretty sure you can,” I said. “You can draw all kinds of shapes. You know what a lemon looks like—it’s like a flat circle with pointy ends!” I was not persuasive. He raised his voice a little: “I caaan’t!” Hmm. “Look,” I said, “What if I draw one first, and you copy me?” (This worked sometimes with kids.) Strike three. “Noooo,” he wailed, “I caaaannnn’t!”

Because I’d come to recognize that children don’t fuss “just because,” I decided to take a more direct approach. “Are you having a bad day, P?” I asked. “No!” he said petulantly. “Oh,” I said, “really? It kind of seems to me like maybe you are. I noticed that earlier, and I’ve been wondering why.” I tried to pause a little, to give him some space. “Does your head hurt?” He continued to focus on his own middle distance. No, he didn’t have a headache. “Okay, so it’s not your head. That’s good. Does your stomach hurt?” No, his stomach didn’t hurt.

Then in a rush, his eyes grew red and filled with tears. “I miss my mom!”

I’d had a growing inkling that something like this was at work, yet I was, again, surprised—this time by the force of his anguish, so powerful, so vulnerable, yet buried all day long. Like a grown man, he might have kept it to himself.

What I’d been seeing in him were nascent coping mechanisms, based on denial. He would have made it home, and it’s possible that that would have sufficed. It’s possible that not even his mom would come to know that he’d struggled all day. Unless something particularly memorable happened, the day would be forgotten. He would grow older, taller, physically stronger, lean muscle replacing the softer flesh of early childhood. This day in kindergarten, when he so much missed his mom, might not “matter.”

It’s my belief, however, that we carry our untended pains within us. As children, we adapt coping mechanisms that shield us when we have few other means to do so, but that often prove to be maladaptive later in life. Some of us can barely confess the things that mean the most to us, that most shape our interior lives and, consequently, our relationships. We may not know how much we have to express, having taught ourselves ignorance of such things; but even knowing, we can feel helpless to act. I speak from experience.

The concept of therapy in our culture is burdened with many cliches; one such, often condescending, is the idea of “rambling” to someone about one’s childhood. How foolish and sad we are, societally, to mock our own deepest needs. It’s a powerful thing, to begin to find relief, after years, maybe decades, of denial. Everyone deserves to be nurtured as a child—however old he or she may be.

On this day, I was able to help P. I told him I was sorry he was having a hard time. I told him I could see the clock from where I was sitting, and I knew there was just an hour left to go. I told him I thought his mom was lucky to have such a loving little boy. A few more statements of that kind, and his tears cleared without falling. I asked if he thought he could draw a lemon for me. He said, “Okay!” And he did.

I’d met this boy’s mother; I knew he was cherished and provided for. He had a wonderful teacher and attended what is widely considered a fine elementary school. At its most pinched, its resources far exceed those of any number of schools in this country, as profiled by Jonathan Kozol in “Savage Inequalities.”

P had had one bad day in the time that I’d known him. And that single day’s pained emotions led him to feel a lack of self-efficacy: “I can’t do it.” The tiniest errant seeds can find quick purchase and grow deep roots.

NEXT TIME YOU MEET A UNICORN

I’m going to step out of my comfort zone today and dispense some very direct, very practical advice: Next time you meet a unicorn, ask for a wish.

It was last Saturday morning, and I was at the farmers’ market, which has thinned considerably at this point in the season. There were gaps between stalls, and the flowers all looked the worse for wear, tatter-petaled. The farmers and their helpers blew on their hands while visitors such as myself eyed their squashes and greens.

Into this autumnal scene came a unicorn on a bicycle. Really! Okay, outwardly she might have been a preschooler with a novelty helmet, but I looked past the (to me, hideous) molded plastic, to her own magical nature, and addressed her with astonishment and wonder.

“Are you the mythical lost unicorn I’ve been hearing about?!” I asked. She looked at me with what I would describe as uncertain pride, and after hesitating, she nodded.

“Oh!” I said. “Then will you please, please grant me my wish?” I pressed my hands together like a steeple in supplication. A moment more of confusion,with something like pleasure crisscrossing her expression, then she waved her hand at me and said, “Wish!” (It looks like a command, but it felt like a bestowal.)

So I closed my eyes, and I did.

There is a telegraphy that flashes back and forth between parents and myself, as we meet somewhere and I note the unicorn (or fairy or caped crusader) accompanying them. I speak to children or not depending on my sense of their parents’ comfort, which is frequently important to ensure a child’s own comfort anyway.

Other important elements of my methodology: I don’t talk too loudly; I don’t stand too close or even lean into their personal space. (What “too” means to any given person is a felt matter, of course, but my instincts are usually pretty good in that regard.) I don’t linger. And of crucial importance? Tone.

Humor and playfulness can be empowering; they can just as easily feel exclusive, or worse. Children are exquisitely sensitive to the ways the world deals with them, so I try to speak to them in a manner that says, “I’m making this up for fun and you’re in on the fun! But also, by the way, magic is real—and you can be in on that, too.”

 

spotted wren-babbler (Elachura formosa)

 

And speaking of magic, this photograph made my day. (Click here for attribution.)

 

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THERAPY…

The prism suspended above my window had ceased spinning its rainbows already that day, the sun having moved on. I’d been doing some desk work, just an average morning, when one of the agency’s supervisors knocked and asked if I had a minute. She came in and perched on a chair, the way people do with news to deliver.

It seemed that a parent had called her to express concerns about me—which set my mind spinning; I’d not yet even met the family. The daughter had been seen for intake a month prior, and the case had since languished, awaiting assignment. Then I was assigned and promptly made an outreach call. The mother answered, and we agreed, with some back and forth, on a time to meet. So far, so normal. The call ended pleasantly, I thought. What in heaven’s name could have gone wrong?

This is where the story gets funny, at least in the telling. It seemed the mother was worried that I wasn’t a good match for her daughter—whose presenting concern was anxiety—because I’d sounded too calm on the phone! Too calm, as we booked an appointment!

She should have seen me then, because calm I was not. The supervisor kindly assured me that such things can happen, mostly when a kid or parent takes a liking to their intake worker and doesn’t want to be moved to someone else for therapy; a lot of personal information gets gathered during intake, too, which can foster a sense of investment. That much made sense to me. Of all the brushes there are to be tarred with, however, “too calm” seemed absurd, and I’d be damned if I was going to be feathered, too. The supervisor advised me that I might be hearing from the mom and, with further reassurances, left. A scant ten minutes later, the phone rang.

Ten minutes was enough of a heads-up, as it turned out, and I was grateful to have had it. As much as I value my education for helping me help others, it has a special sweetness when I feel it working on me. It would have been all too easy for me to decide she was a “helicopter parent,” to label and feel at odds with her—to let my pride dominate. I was new and wanted nothing but unmitigated success. But when, after I said hello, the mother launched into a five-minute stream of exposition—studded with phrases like, “I don’t want you to take this personally, but”—well, I listened. I really listened. When she was finished, I said something like this:

“First of all, I want you to know how much I respect your investment in your daughter’s emotional well-being; I wish the same could be said of all parents. As to my own personal style, I guess I would say that in my experience, the most important thing when working with kids is to accept them for who they are, and the rest tends to follow. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you and your daughter, and I think it’s well worth it to keep our appointment and just see what unfolds. I feel confident that we’ll find a way to connect. But please do, as we go along, share any further concerns with me.”

Validation soothes the savage breast, to adapt an oft-misquoted phrase to my own ends. In validating the mom’s concerns, I soothed myself. The mother seemed mollified in the moment, and we went on to have a wonderful first visit. Her anxious daughter was, in fact, a bit of a firecracker; but I can fizz sparks myself, upon occasion, so I wasn’t worried. I let the mother see a little bit of that energy from me, during our first hour. I went through my introductory sequence, then we played a card game of the daughter’s invention, the three of us sitting cross-legged on the floor. The girl, a young preteen, addressed me by name multiple times, which I took as a good sign. (Kids don’t always do that.) The day before our next appointment, the mom called again—this time, just to RSVP. She wanted me to know they would be there.