DANDELIONS

 

 

Near a local school, 12:30PM on this sunny Sunday, three little girls ran past me as I walked home from town. Two had hands full of dandelions; the third ran behind, calling to them—friends or sisters—to wait. It sounded like she was saying, “I don’t have any more!” Was she feeling left out? I remember that sensation all too well.

My next steps landed me in front of a perfect long-stemmed dandelion, recently plucked and then dropped on the sidewalk, so I picked it up and turned around, exclaiming, “Here’s one!” The girl stopped and did an about-face. “Here’s one that fell,” I elaborated. “Perhaps you’d like to have it.”

I held it out, and she approached. I extended my arm so she wouldn’t have to come too close to me; she reciprocated by reaching from a distance as well. She didn’t seem fearful, just wise and well-taught about strangers. Perhaps also surprised by my unexpected offer. Dandelion in hand, she turned and ran again, catching up.

Spending most of one’s time with traumatized children can make it, at times, almost startling to encounter other children in the world, children whose close and consistent care is evident. So it was for me this morning: a single glance took in the girls’ healthy complexions, tidy attire, and air of confidence.

I mused on the matter as I resumed my path. I had flashes of thought about the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) of the children I’ve come to know in my work: neglect, abandonment, victimization, exposure to violence and substances; and flashes of the little signs of growth and change that mean so much to me, like a moment of relaxation in a face that’s usually tense, a self-protective girl I know whose laughter sometimes breaks through her reserve with as much light as those fistfuls of sunshine I’d just seen.

Then suddenly there was another dandelion before me on the sidewalk—and then another, and then another, and then another, stretching from my feet toward the point near the library where, one June night, I once had a memorable second first kiss. The girls weren’t losing their flowers; they were dropping them purposefully! What grand design were they enacting, with weeds that aren’t weeds? Leaving a trail of happiness behind them, abundant as the marigolds in Monsoon Wedding.

Picking one more up, I held it to my nose and breathed it in. How had I never realized how fragrant dandelions can be? I walked home amid lilacs, flowering trees, tulips blown open, massive bumble bees. I wished the good luck of this world on everyone.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed or omitted. 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.

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 imagined—I hope we three collectively imagined—a jaunty silk scarf tied above her fine nose and wide smile.

“I like that,” she said. Her mom agreed.

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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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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.

“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.

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.”