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.


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.