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.