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.

*

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 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

DSC02315

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.

 

 

 

A NEW MYTHOLOGY

 

Luz's winter coat

 

If you were holding my resume in your hands, you might knit your brows in perplexity at my apparent vocational 180, from the literary arts to clinical social work. I had to justify that even for an unpaid internship. But the fields aren’t really so different: both involve stories, and the language we use to tell them.

From creation myths (the Raven who steals the light; the “Vows” section in the New York Times) to a well-written obit, I’m easily moved when a narrative thread drops a plumb line through a person’s or a culture’s history.

Stories aren’t without their hazards, though. In a single day, we can tell ourselves dozens, often contradictory, tracking the vicissitudes of feelings and fortune. Yet we tend to privilege certain of those narratives above others, sometimes with disastrous results. Many suicides, for example, could be seen as failure narratives: My life will never get better than this.

The interaction between biology and story is too much for me to take on here and now, but suffice it to say our biological states predispose us in narrative directions.

In relationships, our dominant narratives tend to map out the roles that we play. Many kids who come to counseling have been marked within their families as The Problem, so long and so exclusively that they seem to stand no chance of being seen as anything else. While parents may legitimately worry about safety and trust, kids equally legitimately don’t want to have to drag past mistakes alongside them.

The work of counseling, then, is to open up the story, let it breathe, and help it gradually evolve. I believe that we all deserve to play more than one role in our lives, especially to be both nurturer and nurtured. In some settings—at work, for example, or among acquaintances—relatively simple and fixed roles may make sense. But too many of us in our private lives conduct our own personal Stanford Prison Experiment, becoming the (unhappy) parts we play.

*

My still-much-missed client Luz was, at age 8, a great storyteller. “Once upon a time…” was all I’d have to say, then I’d take dictation. This started in our first visit, when I was fired up to try a narrative technique I’d read about. Through a Spanish interpreter, I asked Luz and her mother to tell me a story with animals playing their parts. (Luz’s mother began to cry relating the story of a daddy wolf who got sick and couldn’t provide for his wife and their children. Fortunately, that story ended well.)

Shy and brief at first, like Luz herself, the stories over time became more complex, until near the end of our time Luz told me this one:

Once upon a time, there were two turtles, and one turtle was Mama and a girl turtle named Luz. Luz, she always played with her dolls. One day, Mama Turtle said, “I’m going to the store—you stay inside and don’t open the window or door!” Luz Turtle was not listening; she was playing with her dolls. Then someone knocked on the door. “Ding-dong!” It was a hawk! The turtle, Luz, she opened the door and said, “What do you want, Hawk?” The hawk said, “I’m here to ask for a turtle to eat.” Luz ran upstairs and locked the door. The hawk was angry and flew up and then down the chimney into the room. Then he said, “Open the door, or I’m going to eat you!” and the turtle said, “Not by my shell!” The hawk knocked on the door, and the turtle escaped from the room through the window. “Where is that turtle?!” said the hawk. The turtle ran and found a fox—a police fox! The police fox said, “What’s wrong? Why are you running?” Luz Turtle said, “A hawk is chasing me! He wants to eat me!” The police fox asked, “Where is he?” Luz Turtle said, “In my house, in my room!” The police fox went to the house to talk to the hawk. “Oh, Hawk, go away—find another turtle to eat!” The hawk said, “What are you going to do about it?!” “I’ll put you in jail if you eat this little turtle!” said the fox. “I’ll get you next time,” the hawk said to Luz. After that, Mama Turtle came home. “What’s going on? Why is everything open? I told you to leave the door shut!” Luz Turtle said, “I’m sorry, Mama. I wasn’t listening.” Then she told the story about the hawk.

THE END

Luz had come to counseling with generalized anxiety, much of it related to border-crossing, separations, and the INS. She couldn’t bear to see her parents drive away, even on short errands. By the time of this story, however, several months into counseling, Luz seemed to have conquered her anxiety. With decreasing worry and increasing confidence, she began to act out other roles of childhood—kicking up a fuss about going to bed, for example, when she wanted to watch TV with her older siblings. (Luz’s mom seemed to take this in stride, fondly stroking her daughter’s cheek. Would that all parents could retain such positive regard when discussing tantrums.)

I see in the story of the turtle in peril a meeting and mingling of two major themes, fear and disobedience, with an experience of protection and survival—however tentative that survival might seem, from the hawk’s parting shot. Privately, because I love foxes, I delighted in Luz Turtle’s unlikely hero. (Had I told her they were my favorites? I couldn’t remember!) Openly, Luz delighted in her own wit, her “Not by my shell!” a turtle’s version of “Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin!”

Luz, walking with me down the hall in her winter boots and pompom hat. From her, I learned a new genre: the preservation myth.

 

*Real names are never used here, to protect client privacy. Luz’s story shared with permission.

THE SMARTOVATOR

Fidget toys

 

“I’m making a machine,” Riley said, on our second visit. It was a sunny Tuesday noon hour, and his kindergarten teacher had presumably been glad enough to see him go, given his predilection for throwing furniture when distressed. His mom, fed up with what she perceived as the school’s maladroit interventions, was presumably equally glad to take him out of his classroom and bring him to me. Little did she know how inexpert I felt, with behaviors such as his.

So far I’d seen no physical outbursts from Riley—just an air of self-possession and a serious imagination, which he used to endow himself with every power convenient to his ends. Like his machine: my rectangular wooden fidget toy manipulated into a new configuration, which he pointed at me while declaring, from his mother’s lap, “I’m shrinking you!”

Instinctively, I drew my arms and legs tight to my chest, balancing back on my tailbone, and exclaimed in a pipsqueak voice, “Oh my goodness, what has happened to me? I’ve become so tiny that I’m almost disappearing! Whatever will I do?!

Seeming a little smug—not terribly surprised by his success—he rearranged the toy a second time. “I’ll make you bigger,” he promised slyly. “You’re a GIANT!” I flung my arms and legs out and sprawled all over my chair: “Oh no, this is even worse,” I boomed in my best basso profundo. I saw myself growing too big for the building, soon wearing the roof for a cap.

Growing even faster than me-as-giant was my sense of progress in our play; it, too, was exceeding reasonable bounds, although I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know that as weeks became months, my presence in the landscape of Riley’s world would require that I see and hear nothing of his actual life. It was like I was wearing a blindfold, and anytime I made as if to remove it, Riley’s hands would dart up to hold it in place and cover my ears as well. His imagination would come to seem to me as much defense as diversion. But defense against what?

One challenge in working with “conduct” kids is to maintain a therapeutic approach in the face of serious integration problems. How to help a kid fit into the systems around him? To function socially within the culture? I’m reminded of the Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” The word “socialization” sounds relatively benign, but that hammer tells some hard truths about how it can happen. And the philosophical questions and quandaries about who decides what counts as what—well, they appear endless.

Philosophy aside, though, teachers don’t care to be punched while doing their work, and who can blame them? Furthermore, other students have a right to safety in their school. A therapist can easily feel an urgent pressure, self-imposed or otherwise, to help “fix” things ASAP, and a premature sense of success with a child can lead to frustration and impatience further on down the line. Frustration and impatience are common, of course, and can be admitted in the company of sympathetic colleagues. But they have no place in therapy itself.

Q: Instead of using an apparently strong start to measure disappointment thereafter, can I learn to see it as a source for replenishment? A font of inspiration? A reason for hope?

“You better fix her,” Riley’s mom told him, with unintentional irony, as my sprawling reached its awkward limits. “If only you had a normalizer,” I lamented. Riley paused. “I do have a normalizer,” he said, notably setting down the rectangular toy and reaching for the round one. He spun it in his hands and then released me: “Now you’re normal,” he said.

The inventions didn’t end there, though. As his mom tried to fill me in about how things were going with him at home, he interrupted with another incarnation for me: “I’m going to zap you with my smartovator,” he said. “I’ll make you smart like me. I’ll make you think about things like me.”

Briefly but powerfully, I was transported to a cold walk home, late one December night, and a rare conversation with someone important to me. There were years of painful events and much distance between us, but he seemed to evoke a solution: if I could only be him for even a moment, I’d understand things and forgive him. How fervently I wished for such enlightenment! Needless to say, it didn’t come, although the very suggestion at least made it seem possible. We were adults, and might have used words to approach it, given sufficient time and mutual will.

Pulling myself back to the bright space of day, the four white walls around me decorated with children’s art, I found myself unable to enact my new part, even in play. I didn’t know how Riley thought—would that I did. He seemed to sense my limitation almost as fast as I did, and his rescue was, I thought, sensitive. A jumble of colors again, as he swirled the fidget toy: “Now you’re smart like you again.”

That would have to suffice.

 

THE HARDEST BUTTON TO BUTTON

Tipping back in our chairs, we were poised. I could hear the clink of spurs, the wooden report of the saloon door swinging shut. Across the small table, he waited for me to make my move. He had thrown down a green 0. I had a green 4, and a yellow 0. I had to play by my wits. It was now or never. I reached into my hand of cards, and slowly withdrew the yellow 0, placing it before him. Five years old, with a blond cowlick, he narrowed his eyes and cocked his head. “Are you sure you want to do that, kid?” he asked, generously.

 

UNO

 

Shane was in foster care. At first, he wouldn’t speak a word to me. Shy? Perhaps—although not so shy that his native mischief was quelled in my office. In our first visit, he discovered that he could disconnect my favorite fidget toy—a rainbow circle of mobile wooden spheres—by popping its joints from their sockets. Henceforth, he would do so theatrically, holding the circle up whole to engage my attention, then breaking it apart while I feigned horror at the sight.

During our second visit, I had to step out of my office to pick up some printouts from reception. “Whatever you do,” I said sternly, “don’t take that apart while I’m gone.” I returned to find that, not only had he taken it apart, but he’d scattered the pieces flagrantly hither and yon in the room. I smiled an inward smile.

Outwardly, I merely paused and said, “Something in here feels different, but I can’t put my finger on what…” I stepped near a piece, as if oblivious; he gestured to it with a lift of his chin. “Is something wrong, Shane?” I asked innocently. He started nodding his head toward the wooden sphere at my feet. “I feel like you’re trying to tell me something, but I’m not sure what,” I said. He pointed, his eyebrows straining higher as his eyes grew wider.

I turned to his foster mother, who was observing the whole process with amusement, and engaged her in conversation. While we talked, Shane continued pointing, now in an urgent, wobbily manner, like a weather vane in high wind. “Shane,” I interrupted myself, “Are you okay? You seemed fine when I left, but I’m starting to feel quite concerned.” Jabbing frantically toward the magenta ball I was studiously ignoring, he practically fell from his chair.

It was the pillow fight that really broke the ice, though, I think. In our third visit, when he continued wordlessly to break the circle up, eyeing me all the while, I reached for a cushion and said, “If you take that apart, I will gently bop you on the head with this pillow.” He shook his head no, then popped the thing anyway—so bop him I did. Thus the game evolved. I would promise to bop him on the head, and he would shake his head, then do the thing anyway. Finally, I said, “You know, there are two pillows—I feel bad that I’m always the one bopping you. You could bop me back once, if you like…”

Shane began using words with me, here and there, then whole sentences. Not about his feelings, though. Not about what it’s like to see your parents and siblings by appointment. Not about what it’s like to live with strangers, to have someone else’s mom tucking you in at night, someone else’s dad telling you to take a timeout for stealing candy from the cupboard. Those feelings were in there, though. One evening he was coloring a picture to give to his sister. He was assiduous but slow, and the hand was on the hour, so I had to ask him to stop. He burst into tears. He just wanted to color a little longer: “Please,” he cried. He’d never said that before. I spoke softly and let us run late.

Shane could tie his long shoelaces expertly, but he still had trouble with buttons. Something about that seems so poignant to me. Before my path led me where it has, I was a graduate student of English, teaching basic composition for a meager stipend, along with the other new fellows, and learning the meaning of pedagogy. We had a lot of guidance in our teaching, the first semester. One of the maxims we were meant to relay to our students was, “Write to discover, not to rehash.”

Here’s what I realized, writing this: that a little boy whose family circle was repeatedly broken—first upon his removal by DCYF, then at the end of each visit—zeroed in on a circle that he could break at will. A circle that was always—could always be—put back together. And that seemed to satisfy some small need in him.

 

*Title borrowed from a White Stripes song.