“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.

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

LESSONS IN CANDOR

Some years ago, I was briefly a student in France. Of innumerable conversations and encounters there, this memory stands out: being informed that “only simpletons and prostitutes smile at strangers.” He who declared the dubious adage meant to teach me how I was being perceived. My smiles were the outward manifestation of a then-rare feeling of bounty, so needless to say it wasn’t a welcome lesson.

Whether my would-be tutor was well-intentioned or mean-spirited is a mystery to me. With the willfulness that has preserved me through hard times, I continued to smile when moved so to do, or when trying to lift myself from a low place. (Science now demonstrates that engaging those facial muscles lights up the brain in positive ways—et alors, monsieur!) A seed of self-consciousness was planted, however—its coating bitter when swallowed and its fruit not infrequently, too.

Indeed, taking an inventory of my life thus far, I could publish a whole seed catalog of poison-berry tree varietals. I mean, couldn’t we all? Heirloom and GMO both. I long to call to account a professor who once disparaged me, condemning me as pretentious for describing a philosophical project and ethical inquiry of mine—the likes of which fill the history of letters and earn the lavish attention of scholars.

Why did he fault me, where he might have praised another? Was I too enthusiastic, too unguarded? Candor can be punished as naïve, and sincerity too often bears a competitive disadvantage in life. But my project here is not to contemplate his rhyme and reason; I’ve since learned other lessons. Though encouraged by ancient East and modern West to have no regrets—rien de rien—I grieve for times when I failed to reveal myself to someone who mattered to me, trying to make myself invulnerable. I didn’t start out that way; I developed the reflex for my own protection. Now I’m trying to reeducate myself, and mindfulness helps.

I think I’m learning from mindfulness that a great part of vulnerability is not being seen in my truth so much as being shaky in what that truth is. “Know thyself,” is the old Greek maxim; despite preferring it on principle to the Buddhist concept of “no-self”—I believe that the self exists and furthermore matters as such—they actually work well together. Tuning in to my actual experience (as a being among beings), versus any intellectual constructs of the same (as an ego with its isolating tensions), gives me a feeling of greater stability. When I meditate several days in a row, even for five minutes, I notice the difference. I find a steadier voice with which to speak—a voice more truly, less abashedly, my own.