DOWN WITH TOUGH LOVE

The high windows were blank rectangles of daylight as the gym teacher handed down tough love. Nothing extraordinary had happened: A dimpled kindergartner had let his high spirits run free, during a non-running game. He then slipped on the smooth gym floor, fell, and banged his elbow, bringing said game to a halt—and him to tears.

He had broken a rule. No matter that he was in pain and possibly a kind of mild shock; rule-breaking was what counted to this teacher, who seemed to think the boy had gotten his just deserts. His words were chiseled like a commandment on a stone tablet. You know the small graves in cemeteries, the kind that tug at your heart? A stone tablet like that. “Stop crying,” he said. “I have no sympathy for you.” Mortal words, to my ears.

When I say the student might’ve been in shock, I mean the physical jarring when a body makes impact and the existential betrayal we feel when the world unexpectedly hurts us. For adults, the cause and effect might have been clear in this case, making the hurt smart less than it did for that boy; but children have less experience of physical laws and probabilities than do we adults. To run from sheer exuberance is to feel a great trust in life, if only in the moment; for many if not all of us, there is nothing reasonable about a fall.

I’m reminded of a scene in a drug treatment facility. It’s process group, a daily meeting that is minimally moderated by a counselor, and is a time and place for peers in the program to air their personal challenges, as well as any grievances with each other. One young man rubbed other group members the wrong way; he had a tendency to urge them to open up and share more of themselves. The week prior things had ignited when an older man forcefully asserted his right to process things in his own way, and essentially told the young man to “cut the therapy shit.” But it became clear—to me, at least—that he wasn’t really trying to play therapist, so much as trying to make the group feel safer to him. The more the other men shared, the more he could.

So, one week later: the young man was sitting in a different seat, and seemed to be buried deep within himself. He was set to graduate, which can be an anxious time. Was he ready for it—for life? The subject of childhood came up, raised by one of the women, and he told a story about a game he played with his mom when she was in the kitchen, wherein he’d mischievously steal scraps of food and she’d lovingly scold him not to eat before dinner. Then his stepfather came in and, oblivious to their play, laid down the law. The young man broke down in the telling, sobbing two decades’ worth. “He beat the fun out of me,” he said. “I don’t know how to feel joy.” Even while he was crying, his jaw was clenching, muscles working, trying to hold back the tears.

I’m not meaning to equate the first scenario with the second—a one-time incident of punitive dispassion with what would become ongoing abuse—but not because small moments don’t matter in big ways. Small moments matter enormously. They are cellular; they constitute us.

 

 

* I’ll try to address the subject of compassionate discipline in a future post. Among the good and relevant books there are to consult, I can recommend The Whole-Brain Child, by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, and Playful Parenting, by Lawrence J. Cohen.

“WHY IS THAT A FEAT?”

Lucky Apple

I’ll say it again: I love the directness of children.

Sometimes it provides comic relief, as when, one September not too long ago, the school principal visited the kindergarten classroom where I used to volunteer, to greet the matriculating pupils. A little blond boy, who would become a favorite of mine, studied him quizzically—head cocked, hand on his chin—musing as if half to himself, “I wonder what happened to all of your hair…” The principal’s shiny pate flushed, and he seemed to choke on his words, but gamely he replied that he didn’t know, either.

Often a child’s candor is a refreshing change from the subterfuge of adults, with our emotional trench coats and back alleys, to say nothing of political doublespeak. Tikes playing with trains are the real conductors on the so-called Straight-Talk Express. (There are exceptions, of course, as I’ve acknowledged before.)

Last year I worked with a boy who’d been held back for issues that had been labeled “ADHD.” His family life was chaotic* from morning till night and undermined our therapeutic work during in-home visits in the same way, I’m guessing, that it limited his ability to do homework and engage in his own development. A meeting with faculty and staff at his locally notorious school demonstrated nothing so much as their lack of comprehension for his circumstances.

He and I had one precious office visit—our first visit, before transportation became a problem for his mom. I learned so much! We did one of my favorite focusing activities: I asked him to close his eyes while I struck my singing bowl, then raise his hand when he couldn’t hear its fading resonance anymore.** Then, I asked him to do the same thing, except this time when he could no longer hear the bell, he was to listen for anything else he could hear around him, and raise his hand when he was ready to report back.

I’m not taking authorial license to say that I’ve rarely seen such a look of concentration as on that boy’s face in the sanctuary of the office.

I was surprised and impressed to learn from him that there was more than one clock in the room; I had never noticed. (It wasn’t my space.) He was perfectly still and observant, without evincing the slightest self-consciousness. After, he spoke offhandedly of his excellent hearing. I exclaimed over his ability, in a different exercise, to shift his awareness from the top of his head to his right baby toe, such that both parts grew tingly in turn in response to being noticed; I called it a feat. After I’d defined the word for him, his response was, “Why?” What was so extraordinary? Graciously he seemed to give me the benefit of the doubt.

It’s a feat because it involves executive function. Because that’s an important way to use the brain. Because that’s the very area in which he was considered weak. Because, in fact, many of us barely notice our creaturely existence in this world, except in the most obvious ways. Because, because, because—so many possible answers. But really—why, indeed? It was a good question.

Speaking of feats, the apple pictured above was plucked from the orchard equivalent of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. And it was good—tannic and tart. A worthy reminder of many life lessons: a spindly trunk, and branches just laden with fruit.

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*This is a capsule version of his situation, written from my outsider’s perspective, and should—in fairness to his mom especially—be read and understood as such. No piece of writing, however careful, ever tells or ever can tell the full tale. Not that I was endeavoring to, clearly; but I’m conscious of taking a liberty when writing about anyone but myself, and it matters to me to note that, as a caveat.

**I can’t claim to have invented this awesome activity. I think it’s fairly common in the world of mindfulness, but I know that Susan Kaiser Greenland describes it nicely in her book, The Mindful Child.

UNRULY, STOIC, HEROIC

One of them wore a black biker jacket; another, a bitty brown mohawk. Several could not hold still if you paid them. They were third-grade rebels, and they sat in a circle, governed by a pink-and-yellow beach ball.

The rules were simple: Whoever held the ball could expect our collective attention as he shared a piece of news, and when he was done, he’d (lightly!) toss the ball to his chosen successor. Everyone would have a turn.

That simple ritual might be familiar to those in the school counseling world—and, for that matter, to teachers—but I was an intern, and justifiably impressed by my supervisor’s brilliance in coordinating it. Her energy normally ran as high as the boys’—she’d rather do calisthenics than sit at a desk—but she instinctively tempered herself to lead by example.

As with all positive interactions, this one worked on many levels, some subtler than others. For one thing, in a general classroom situation, attention tends to be divided six ways from Sunday, and it’s easy for kids to feel less included than they might wish to be—regardless of adult perceptions as to how much time and energy they’re getting. (If attention is like a beam of sunshine, kids are like mobile plants, jockeying for space, spreading their leaves, and reaching—in whatever way they know how—toward the light.) Clear turn-taking is more valuable than it might appear to you or me, especially with boys quickly learning from the world to play it cool, be disaffected.

So the beach ball gave the boys a chance to get what they privately, deeply needed, without having to fight for it. It also gave each boy brief control—over the ball, over what he offered up, and over whose turn would come next—and subconsciously encouraged the sharing of power. Additionally, as Lawrence J. Cohen discusses in Playful Parenting, “catch” is a way of bridging the distance between males in our culture—even, I think, when played out so briefly.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this activity, as participant-observer, was that, before sharing, each boy was asked to instruct us as to how he would like his news received. Applause? Silence? “Freestyle”? Several chose the last option, of course, and everyone was duly silly, crawling like crocodiles or shimmying or jumping like participants in some goofy Olympics. But the majority of the boys—referred to the group for their disruptive behaviors—requested silence. Heroic little men-to-be, I think they wanted to be taken more seriously.

TO WAKE WITH A SIMPLE THIRST

To wake with a simple thirst for clean water and know that it can be quenched is a glorious thing. I hear this in the stories of recovering addicts.

In my own experience, impatient hunger upon rising—to say nothing of an immediate reach toward stimulants of one kind or another, however benign (chocolate, tea)—is a sign of imbalance somewhere in my system, be it merely the aftermath of the preceding day’s choices or something more involved. I’m grateful and happy when, like today, I only want water first thing, or water with lemon. It seems a good sign.

Such a thirst is also educative, or can be. There is edification in true satisfaction. What really matters in life? Those of us fortunate enough to meet our simplest biological needs are also caught up in a maelstrom of confusion about thousands of things we’re persuaded to want. Said confusion, said flurry—including the internet sidebar and popup ads that you don’t find here—occupies precious time and resources, with global ramifications.

Clean water, quenched thirst—these are too rare for large swaths of the world. I’m making an obvious point, I know, but it’s easy to forget. And how to live with such knowledge? I do my small part by supporting organic agriculture as often as possible (to spare the water system, as well as the health of farm workers, bees, etc.) and try to buy local and fair trade when I can (to support genuine livelihoods here and elsewhere in the world). I aim, when I’m able, to invest in ethically vetted mutual funds and donate to fiscally responsible nonprofits.

Before thirst is the need for oxygen; after thirst is the need for nourishment. As a graduate student, I had little time for proper cooking. That’s still true, actually; but I have more time to daydream about it. As soon as I finished my last paper, I subscribed to several highly regarded and/or popular food blogs. A number of them even slant toward the traditional food preparations (like lacto-fermentation) that increase nutritional content. Still, the frivolity of commerce—individual cupcake stands?

There is that part of me that finds the gracious living of the past appealing—with its special cutlery and egg cups. It evokes ritual and a stately pace for living. But of course, gracious living has always, in various ways, involved the exploitation of others, as the docent in Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery so importantly states to a young tour group: we have to acknowledge that this preserve for the art of the ages, was funded in large measure by slave labor. Nor am I even talking here about that kind of calm institution, those old-fashioned niceties. I’m talking about the ceaseless contemporary inundation that says Indulge yourself and Buy, buy, buy. Exploitation is not a thing of the past.

To return to the beginning: I was once over-served at a New Year’s Eve party—I was inexperienced, and the friendly bartender poured with too generous a hand. I savored the tonic, the lime, and unknowingly drank so much vodka that I lost all track of time, place, and myself. The next day I could barely move—not just from my bed, but in it. However, it was a period in my life when I regularly drew with my non-dominant hand, a method that yields surprises. Somehow, I drew in bed that day. Desperately hung over, with sick lucidity, I drew a glass of water with angel wings.

Angel water

EARLY MORNING GIRAFFES, AND A WELL-MEANING NEIGHBOR

I love taking walks, as I’ve mentioned before, and usually find some bit of magic in them. There was the time, as a dramatic example, a bald eagle swooped low over me on South Street—South Street!—as if to bring me the courage and invigorating sense of benediction I then needed.

The two small giraffes I saw ahead of me at 6AM today, on the steep grade I was climbing, were not magical, however, but merely a trick of light, perspective, and my eyes, still full of sleep. They were greyhounds, just nosing about, as I saw when I got closer. (They possessed their own mystique, of course.)

My thoughts were occupied by a well-meaning neighbor, who planted many of the shade trees on my street, and who cleared all our parking spaces with his snow-blower these last two colossal winters. I rarely see him, so when our paths crossed recently and he asked how I was doing, I mentioned I’d graduated. Graduated from what? “Social work, for counseling,” I said.

“So you wanna work with the crazies, huh? That’s burnout work right there.”

“Well,” I said, “it probably helps that I don’t see them that way.”*

I’m frankly baffled as to why / how such stigma continues to exist. I know this isn’t an original thought, nor even the first time I’ve made the comparison, but is it really that different from the old confusion of epilepsy with demonic possession?

There is no person of such sound physique or character that he wouldn’t be affected if dosed past his own personal threshold for drugs. There is no one who wouldn’t fall into a stupor; or panic; or see, hear, and feel things, based on whatever chemicals were circulating in her brain and blood.

Even when we are healthy, we feel good and clear and sane because our own personal pharmacies are generating the right balance of chemicals. For many people, that balance gets thrown.

Mental health, like all health, exists on a continuum, or something akin to one. If that scares people because it seems too fragile, I think it ought to give them hope for the good that can be done. I could write about this at length but will have to take a piecemeal approach, given the limits of time and my ability to organize my thoughts and research. My approach, in brief, is holistic.

One important point to make is this: genomes can be mapped, and consequently we’ll see more attempts at targeted medications; but what about epigenetics? A person whose liver has been compromised from birth by a toxic water supply, for example, will likely be more vulnerable to all sorts of things (and possibly less responsive to treatment) than those raised on clean spring water or reverse-osmosis carbon filtration. We’d all do well to a) value our health from the inside-out, and b) demonstrate humility and compassion. Mental health professionals included!

I was thinking of these things as three police vehicles passed me, turning into their parking lot up the way. It so happens that the neighbor in question is a retired police officer, and I’m sure he saw many things in his time on the force to darken his view of humanity. I myself feel pretty grim about it anytime I find myself near a television, which thankfully is fairly rare. The work of law enforcement is psychologically stressful and legitimately dangerous, however small the town, however easy the precinct, and I mention my neighbor’s profession not to incite antagonism against cops, but to encourage the use of mental health sensitivity training among all first responders, so that dignity can be preserved and lives can be saved.

As I write these last words, inside a small office next to a rest home, an old man with dementia is out making the rounds of the parking lot, checking all the license plates. I’m told this was once his job somewhere, and that he’s allowed to continue it here because it settles him. The people in charge even give him a fluorescent vest to wear. I have to smile as he limps along—he looks so purposeful. He’s doing his work.

* For the record, I have never personally worked with those known as the severely mentally ill; but my sense of the ethics of care holds for them as for the kids, inmates, and addicts with whom I’ve interacted.

STILLNESS IS THE MOVE

Dewy daisy

I met someone recently who has a feature on his phone that allows him to tap his screen and make water seem to ripple from the touched spot. He said it relaxes him, and given that he’s a newly recovering addict, I reigned in my critical impulse—I mean, I hope his phone does have a calming influence, since that would beat the hell out of his using heroin.

Even so, I have questions: Is such a device the portable tech version of the tabletop Zen sand garden, which is itself a marketable version of actual Zen gardens, careful oases of stillness and contemplation on a crowded chain of islands with a militaristic past and consumerist present? Is rippling water on a phone a translation of ancient wisdom for our times—a digital, audiovisual haiku—or a trading of engagement for instant gratification?

Mindfulness seems to be everywhere and nowhere these days, and I can understand why some Buddhists take issue with the trend—those of the opinion that meditation without precepts is an ungrounded activity. I don’t share that perspective exactly; I see lots of evidence that mindfulness, as a non-affiliated practice, can be transformational. Indeed, that has been my own experience. But “practice” is the key, and I don’t believe there are shortcuts for that. No apps, no props, not even good books on the subject can accomplish what just sitting regularly in meditation can.

For my groups at the jail, for example, I developed a ten-week curriculum on “The Skills of Mindfulness,” and I could open my notebook anytime, anywhere, and credibly explain my outlines and handouts. But the difference between theory and praxis is as great as the biblical “letter” vs. “spirit” of the law. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what I’ve already learned from mindful meditation, how it’s made me aware of myself in a new way as I interact with the world. But whatever memory for the benefits I possess, when I’m not actively practicing, I feel different—more harried, less steady, a poorer communicator. Out of touch with myself and what matters to me.

How much meditation is enough? At a minimum, I would say five dedicated minutes every day without fail are worth more than thirty now and then, and for those new to meditation, taking on too much can backfire. Bhante Gunaratana warns against this in Mindfulness in Plain English, making clear that starting modestly allows us to incorporate a practice into our actual lives (and thereby transform them), whereas an extreme commitment is usually untenable and will quickly fall to the wayside. This also resonates with Dorothea Brande’s advice to aspiring writers, worth quoting at length:

“We customarily expend enough energy in carrying out any simple action to bring about a result three times greater than the one we have in view. This is true from the simplest matters to the most complex and of physical effort as well as mental. If we climb stairs, we climb them with every muscle and organ laboring as though our soul’s salvation were to be found on the top step, and the result is that we grow resentful at the disproportionate returns we receive from our expended energy. Or, putting a great deal more energy out than we can use, we must take it up, somehow, in purposeless motion. Everyone has had the experience of pushing a door that looked closed with more vigor than was necessary and of falling into the next room as a consequence. Or we have picked up some light object which looked deceptively heavy. If you notice yourself on such an occasion, you will see that you must make a slight backward motion merely to retrieve your balance.” (from Becoming a Writer)

One way to recognize a trend (as opposed to, say, a movement) is to notice whether it’s feeding commerce more than it feeds the human spirit. However often we now hear the word “mindful” spoken in various contexts, talking the talk is ultimately meaningless if that’s all that’s happening. There is a garden within to tend; there are waters to touch and observe. To quote that excellent song by the Dirty Projectors, “stillness is the move.”

AND SPEAKING OF CANDOR…

Morning walks tend to yield unexpected rewards. This morning I passed two blond boys walking together, one perhaps 10, the other more like 4, keeping pace quietly side by side. As they turned a corner, the younger one slipped his hand into his older brother’s, who accepted it. It was a candid gesture, and it was received.

“Receiving” is a big part of therapeutic practice for me; creating a space in which a person can ask and offer. When I meet clients for the first time, I emphasize the importance of my having a sense for their feelings and experience of counseling. “For example,” I say, “if I get something wrong, it’s important that I know so we can work together on setting things right.” With young children, I sometimes give them a chance to practice the possibly intimidating act of correcting me, a grownup, by making silly false statements for them to refute, which they unfailingly do.

Scanning the New York Times Magazine recently, I came across Hanya Yanagihara’s piece, “Why I’m Afraid of Therapy.” Reading it, I felt sorry that portrayals of therapy in culture continue to demonstrate an irresponsible use of privilege. It is a privilege to be trusted with a person’s history, thoughts, and feelings. I felt sorry, too, that Yanagihara seemed to want something that she nonetheless wouldn’t seek: “So what do you do, when you realize you’ve created a life in which you’re unable to let yourself be observed, and yet, equally, yearn to be seen?” That sentiment has been true for me not only in relation to therapy, but also in relation to intimacy.

Q: How does a person build trust without a foundation of it?

A: Slowly and with care.

Ego can run as rampant in therapy as in any other profession, as demonstrated by the Svengali-like character in “Love and Mercy,” who preyed upon Brian Wilson’s vulnerability. How to avoid that perversion of the vocation deserves more space than I’ll give it here and now. Briefly, though, what about aspiring to dedicate 90+ percent attention to the client, with the remaining percentage applied to self-awareness of one’s therapeutic options, moves, and motives? Process recordings help foster that kind of orientation, and as trying as they can be, they really ought to be part of any therapeutic education.

In any case, my work with children thus far has blessed me abundantly with the experience of candor. Children can learn early to hide themselves, of course; but mostly they are closer to guilelessness than the rest of us.

As my internship wrapped up this past spring, it came time to say goodbye to my clients, a process heartlessly known in the field as “termination.” My dear Luz, happily, had made such progress that she and her mother concluded they would simply end with me, rather than transferring to another clinician. When I asked her if she had any last questions for me, while she had the chance, Luz screwed up her face into her posing-a-shy-question smile. “Will you miss me?” she asked.

“Of course, I will, Luz!” I exclaimed, and told her all the different ways. The “good goodbye” is so rare in life, and such a gift. I mean, what a beautiful question to pose: Will you miss me? What, furthermore, a beautiful chance to answer.

Me and Luz

I and Luz