LETTERS AND WORDS

The waiting room had been freshly painted over, institutional off-white where once there’d been a warm robin’s egg blue. Not my choice, needless to say; the change felt aggressively bright and depleting, uninviting and not at all therapeutic. Someone else apparently took issue with it on some level, too, as a bit of vandalism appeared in short order where none had ever occurred before, at least not in my time. A defacement of the wall that I noted but blocked out, the way I note and block out the crumbling exterior details of the building and the grout in the bathroom tile that probably hasn’t been clean in decades. My client had studied it, though. “Um, do you see this?” Nodding toward the damage that suddenly resolved from random scrapes into a rough approximation of the word “slut.” Weeks passed, with kids and adults coming and going, sitting in the chair under that word. Was anything done about it? I could have submitted a work order, but at that point I was perversely curious whether anyone involved in admin or maintenance would notice and address it. Weeks more passed. Finally, an act of vandalistic intercession: someone scratched away diligently to transform “slut” into “slurp.” I appreciate that anonymous act of transformation while disliking both words for different reasons and finding the whole scenario to be yet another reminder that I need to be moving on from this place where I’ve dedicated so much energy. I need to be in a place more of my making, and that time is coming. I know it won’t be easy leaving, though. The collegial bonds forged in shared adversity are uniquely strong, of uncommon mettle, continually tested by the agency model. And then there are the children and families, and the honor and inspiration of working with them. The proud pencil marks on my door where I measured the heights of kids whose growing wasn’t always celebrated elsewhere, and other reminders in my office of clients who’ve come and gone. A paper painted fish above my coat hook. A little wooden house balanced atop a picture frame left over from a game of object-hide-and-seek. Sparkly stones on my windowsill. And this message on a post-it from a girl who used to end every visit by challenging me to a race down the hallway, glorying in her own speed: “Strong is the new cool.” A lasting gift that she, so fleet, gave to me.

 

 

+

Text and image copyrights held by me. My posts have gotten shorter as I deal with other things. As ever, I’m grateful for your reading. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too.

DIGGING IN THE DIRT

I just wanted to share an interview I found affecting, a conversation between Terry Gross and Bryan Stevenson. Halfway through, there’s a story about digging. I’m so glad I happened to hear this, as part of my start to the year.

https://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/2020/01/20/797265594/fresh-air-for-jan-20-2020-just-mercy-attorney-bryan-stevenson?showDate=2020-01-20

 

 

 

 

 

LOST AND FOUND

 

 

I saw this little shoe on a walk this past month, presumably set on a step near where it was lost, to catch the eye of a parent who might have circled back to look, or who perhaps passes naturally in the course of regular strolls through the neighborhood. Given the year I’ve had, and the challenges I still face, gratitude hasn’t come readily to me, but I’m grateful for this shoe as a simple object with symbolic potential. It reminds me of the people who love and believe in me, who have sustained me through 2019—including my father, who has proudly worn a scarf I knit, on every cold day for the last decade, telling admirers that his daughter made it for him, as if it were a treasure among treasures. A decade, and still to this day. That detail—in the arc of life, a scarf is a detail—is meaningful in ways I can’t explain here. Families can be complicated, and mine has been since I can remember—painfully so, for me, with ramifications in every direction. I’ve always envied those I know whose families are close and warm. But the scarf stands out as in a painting, jaunty red, each stitch knit with care. Bright as a kite or a flag, and warming his neck so he can sing. He’s never lost hold of its meaning to him. I’m grateful for that.

LITTLE PLANET

 

 

I was walking home from the farmers’ market one sunny Saturday morning when I happened upon this little moss orb, brightening first the sidewalk and then my palm, where it rolled in soft perfection. It made me feel unaccountably happy, and boy, did I need that joy. I sat on the stoop, admiring it for a while. Fast forward a couple weeks: a teen client wanted a crafty project and settled on teaching me how to make pom-poms. The yarn in the staff closet was a yellow-flecked green. After assiduously wrapping it around the tines of a fork, binding it off, sliding it free, and snipping loops all around, I held a fabricated replica, not stunning, but in the moment exciting enough that I reached for my phone to share this photo. Said teen appeared unimpressed. Even with the plants on my sill and the trees across the road, nature often feels a world away when I’m in my office. Its fluorescing brightness; its glowing grace. My endless need for those qualities. The silence in me that wants to exclaim.

+

Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted, and details may be altered in fact while relevant in spirit. Text and image copyrights held by me. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. I’m deeply grateful for my readers, and as always, I’d love to reach more. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too, by linking to it in whatever way works for you. I typically post once a month, so no barrage.

OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS

 

I noticed right away the whiff of chemicals on his coat, but I didn’t want to embarrass or offend him, so I didn’t ask him to hang it up in the waiting room. I thought of him as shy and inward, in ways that might have had to do with poverty and tumult, and I didn’t want to drive him further down into any of that. I did mention lightly that I noticed something, and he told me it was diesel that had spilled on him. I opened the window, giving the excuse that I was warm, while keeping my sweater on. Did he catch that discrepancy of logic? If so, it wasn’t apparent. I liked him but didn’t know if I was reaching him in any helpful way. We sat in long silences together while he sorted out the tactile puzzles next to him. I asked him to name his feeling when he solved one, and encouraged him to notice sources of pride in his life. I told him he deserved to feel pride, and his eyebrows went up—his strongest reaction ever in session, I think. Not because of him, but for the sake of my breath that day, I was relieved when he left. He’d been sitting on a pillow that I knew would never air out; I would have to remove it. The day proceeded. I saw two more clients, then transferred my plants from the windowsill, where the morning sun through the glass is always too intense, to the little table where I sit with kids, and left for my evening job. The next morning when I unlocked my office, the diesel was still eye-burningly thick in the air, and my fluorescent pothos, formerly a glowing green, thick and exuberant with leaves, was at least half-dead—the wilted leaves brown and sickly slick. Pothos rate high among potted plants both for ease of growth and for their ability to clean indoor air; I felt as though this one had taken the hit for the other two plants in my office, and for me. I picked the dead parts off and discarded them, realizing only later that I should’ve photographed the whole plant first, to capture the devastation that had been wreaked, that evidence of ecosystem in action. Then I did what I had to do: I opened my window and sat at my desk to start notes. Absentmindedly I reached for my mug, forgetting that the water had sat overnight, and realized I was tasting diesel fumes that had settled there. I spit into the garbage, rinsed my mouth, washed the cup multiple times in the staff kitchen, rinsed my mouth again, drank filtered water. Every day for over a week, I came in to more dead leaves. At first dark like overripe bananas, then dwindling to jaundiced leaves with darker spots, like burn marks. The foliage sparser and sparser as I pruned and hoped for recovery. An acquaintance who heard about all this, after the fact, said, “Never sacrifice yourself that way again. Ask for the coat to come off.” Well, the boy didn’t wear the coat next time I saw him, which, given patterns of attendance in such an agency, wasn’t a mere seven days later. It got warmer. But meanwhile—just imagine—he’d been walking around like that, breathing that in.

+

Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted, and details may be altered in fact while relevant in spirit. Text and image copyrights held by me. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. I’m deeply grateful for my readers, and as always, I’d love to reach more. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too, by linking to it in whatever way works for you. I typically post once a month, so no barrage.

HAIL-MARY SWISH

There’s a basketball rim behind the agency that stands several feet below regulation. It’s supported by a plastic base that tends to fill with water, broken glass, and cigarette butts. The court is smaller than your kitchen, unless your kitchen is a galley on a boat; it’s made of brick and weeds and bordered by abandoned patio furniture. Beyond that, the miracle of grass.

It’s good for little but playing H-O-R-S-E, which I’ve done in blazing sun, swarms of gnats, and even cold, though not lately—it’s probably been twelve months or more since I’ve taken clients there. Different clients, different interests. My basketball, bought four years ago for work, sits deflating under the desk where I sit typing copious notes, community mental health’s Sisyphean task.

I don’t miss those outside sessions, which always made me feel like I was in the wrong place, wishing I were in the right one. I’m still working out to this day where exactly that place will prove to be, ultimately. I do sometimes, though, think about a middle school boy I saw early in my employment. He was my first truly mandated client and engaged in selective mutism in protest of his mother’s insistence that he attend therapy. The substance of her concern was his childish behaviors at home. I would not be of help, it soon became clear.

Our therapeutic relationship didn’t start strong. The boy complied with an expressive activity straight from a textbook, to choose an animal figure from a jar to represent each member of his family and place them in a constellation of sorts on a labeled paper; but his reasons for choosing each, he kept to himself.

It didn’t finish strong, either; our last visits, as I recall, surpassed mere silence and exceeded recalcitrance to enter territory beyond. While now I might recommend more co-parenting work, at that point on my learning curve, I was advocating to end services, expressing privately to my client’s mom that I would rather he feel supported in his preference than be turned off to therapy for the rest of his life. By then, she and I had had a few one-on-one talks, and I believe the most difficult piece about closing, from her perspective, may have been the loss of someone to hear her own challenges and frustrations with the whole family.

Formal activities work for some kids, but it didn’t take long before my focus shifted, for the duration of the middle phase, to attempting rapport by joining my client in whatever fun could be had. We played War (for the record, the most tedious card game I know) and UNO. There may have been an occasion of popping matchbox cars in a wordless contest; that’s a bit foggy now. Sometimes we went out back to the sorry court described above, clouds passing overhead. I had the idea that if I could impress him with my hoop-shooting skills, the energy of our visits overall might shift. Well, you already know that didn’t happen. But there was one glorious afternoon that lives in my memory…

His younger brother had come along that day, and the decision was made to head for the grass with a small finned foam football that was meant to have good spin, though not when thrown by my hands. My client was animated with unusual verve, in the role of leader. He talked! Mostly to his brother, but still! In a spirit of inspiration and delight, I proposed rules. Instead of just passing and catching or fumbling, whoever dropped the ball would run prescribed laps and then throw the football through the basketball hoop. If a basket was made, play could resume. If not, more laps.

He wasn’t just game, he showed gusto, and the three of us ran around the broken picnic tables until I literally, if dramatically, fell down panting. I think of that day, and the neon-green torpedo catching net, as my Hail-Mary Swish. I gave it my all, and my all was both grounded and free. If my client remembers anything from our time together—ancient history now, in kid years—I hope that’s it. We salvaged something, I think, however small. Not in that case, but in the very best cases, salvage can be salvation.

+

Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted, and details may be altered in fact while relevant in spirit. Text and image copyrights held by me. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. I’m deeply grateful for my readers, and as always, I’d love to reach more. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too, by linking to it in whatever way works for you. I typically post once a month, so no barrage.