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.

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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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A COUNTERVAILING MAGIC

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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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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.