GORILLA! BANANA!

 

Frank was twelve, and living with grandparents for the reason now so common here: his parents got caught up in drugs and abandoned him. He had a roof over his head when I met him, but still lacked nurturing. One grandparent was an alcoholic whose next bender would crash the family car; the other was a chainsmoker forced to drag an oxygen tank with her everywhere she went. She dragged it into my office, where she proceeded to carp and nag and bicker Frank into oblivion. No wonder his posture had become a slow slink off the chair toward the floor.

Caregivers can be the unwitting designers of psychological stress tests, their children the unfortunate test subjects. Frank’s grandmother had a habit of saying “No” that was so deeply entrenched, I seriously heard her once contradict Frank on whether the sun was shining. The acts of defiance for which he was brought to counseling swiftly came to seem to me like logical expressions of resistance, little signs of patriotic loyalty to his own nascent self. Did they make life harder for her? I’m certain they did. I’m equally certain things weren’t, at bottom, his fault.

When Frank and I spent time alone together, the handful of times they came in, I made it my business to say yes as often as possible, to affirm his playful nature by playing back. Silliness came easily because I felt I could see it nourishing him; even though I believe in the value of play, it’s harder for me to be silly when I don’t feel connected to the deeper reward, just as it’s hard for me in my personal life to make small talk unless I know Big Talk is also an option.

Late one afternoon, Frank threw himself to the carpet. I remember it being dark outside, so we must have hit Daylight Savings, that cold plunge. I don’t why, but instead of telling me about his day, he began calling out the names of fruit: “Apple! Pineapple!” So I also lay down on the carpet, at the little distance my office allowed, and began repeating after him. When he came to “Banana!” he exclaimed it while “jumping” a little, as if popping from a cartoon peel. So I did that, too. He did it again. I did it again. Then, in the middle of trading off, I sat up slightly, beat my chest, and said, “Gorilla!” And the game became Gorilla! Banana!

Thrilled by the sweet, spontaneous fun of it all, I later described the scene to a coworker at my night job. “Sounds like a drinking game,” was his reply. Which sums up quite a lot about quite a lot, including why I write. I need a place to bring my enthusiasms and my earnestness. Everyone does.

Another evening, Frank was in a soberer mood. I invited him to color in a heart with a color for each emotion he was feeling and proportional to it. The heart he filled in was one of overwhelming sadness, with cracks in it, but with love at the center. He shared with me a new prognosis for his grandmother’s health. We discussed it, and he decided to show his heart to her when she came in. What do you think she did?

She told him he was lying—lying, about his heart—and ought to own up to the truth, that he was only sad about losing time on his videogames, a consequence imposed for some misbehavior. What good would counseling do, if he was only going to mislead his counselor? He and his sibling had both had services off and on, with various providers and the same essential refrain. I barely got a word in edgewise; she let me get as far as validating her perceptions as such, but then no further. She rejected utterly the notion of his love.

As they left the session and walked down the hall, I called after him softly. He turned. “Gorilla!” I whispered, and beat my chest. He brightened, and popped like a banana in reply. That was a couple years ago. I haven’t seen him since.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, I hope you’ll consider sharing it. 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’d like to put in a plug for Playful Parenting, by Lawrence J. Cohen, an inspiring book and enjoyable read.*** “The Numbers Game” (July 2017) will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. Thank you for reading!

 

THE CLASP OF THE NECKLACE

Rainbow wall, August

 

My appointment with Tess was, unusually, at 9AM—right as the morning sunlight was angling through my prism in the window. “You’re just in time to see my pet rainbows,” I said. (I think of them that way sometimes.)

“Pet rainbows!” She ran over to kneel on the chair and held her finger beneath a hovering splotch of visible spectrum, as though holding aloft a perching butterfly. I leaned in to look with her. “It must like you,” I said.

Fanciful notions flow rather freely from me now; a few years ago, less so. I thought I might like working with kids, but felt shy and apprehensive around them. The world seemed to have changed so much since I was five, six, seven—kids seemed to be exposed to such sophisticated things. Would what had mattered to me at their age even register with them? I volunteered in a kindergarten, to put myself to the test, to see if I could find ways to relate.

One day the teacher left me in charge while she ran some errands around the school. My job as a glorified babysitter was to read Jack and the Beanstalk to the class. I did so with all the gusto I could muster, then found myself at “The End,” with no sign of the teacher returning. Without further direction, I needed to buy time. So I improvised: “Let’s be seeds,” I said. “Let’s make ourselves really small, and then we can grow up up up!”

The children immediately crouched and tucked into themselves. “Sprinkle us!” Gillian cried, and joy bloomed in me. It has continued to bloom and grow through my counseling work. Sometimes I feel as though I could climb to the clouds on its flourishing stalk.

While I like to write in celebration, though, there are umpteen moments when I get things wrong—sometimes so wrong that it’s painful. Like the time I noticed that the clasp of Tess’s necklace had slid ’round to the front. “Make a wish,” I’d said, out of habit.

Tess had been in foster care roughly one year. Her parents had neglected her and her siblings while tending their addictions; her father would die of an overdose within the week of those three words. Make a wish.

I had let myself become ungrounded in my life—busy and neglectful of contemplation.  I wasn’t fully in the moment with a little girl who needed every ounce of presence she could get. Now I carry the memory of Tess picking up that remark, which I’d dropped so casually, and holding it close. My sobering summons back to the moment came when she fixed her eyes on me. She trusted me. She asked, “Will it come true?”

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. 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. Thank you for reading.

WHEN EAST IS WEST

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.”

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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.

 

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.

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

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.”