MY SMALL, GOOD THING

I had an insatiable hunger as a child, which I tried to feed with chapter books, great stacks that I collected on weekly library trips—cradled below my belly and held in place with my chin, as I carried them to the checkout counter.

That hunger is still present, but fiction often feels insubstantial these days, with so little time to spare and so much to accomplish. That shelf of titles on trauma, addiction, blended families, communication, grief, and more—I need what they contain. I need it all, I need it now. Such is the pressing quality of community mental health.

My intimate contact with the stories of traumatized children leaves me with simultaneous and contradictory incentives. One, to write so vividly of the horrors I hear and the pain I witness, that the general reader looks at the world anew: aghast and called to action. Two, to obscure those horrors so as not to titillate prurient minds or inspire troubled imaginations.

Sitting with memories of trauma is usually manageable; harder by far is to know that a trauma is ongoing—unfolding right before me in my office at times, in the words of caregivers who evidence no care to give, likely having received too little when they themselves were small. Harder is listening to parents, grandparents, and guardians who are overwhelmed and relentlessly negative, who fill the ears and hearts of their charges with every kind of blame and shame, each and every possible iteration of No. Needing to be diplomatic for the umpteenth time, when that is the last thing I feel; turning down the heat lest I, too, boil over.

So it is that I recommend Raymond Carver’s story, “A Small, Good Thing,” a masterful sketch of anguish in the ordinary world, and the humble ways we can assuage it. I reread it not long ago and carry that title within me, a phrase that describes the bird feeder on my window. How it took the birds two weeks to find it, but the first I saw was the male house finch, ardently red from crown to breast and finely patterned white and brown beneath. How the female house finch brings their juveniles to feed them beak to beak, while the punk-rock tufted titmouse busies himself with the sunflower seed.

Whatever else the day brings, there is that.

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The Raymond Carver story mentioned above appears in his great collection Cathedral, as well as numerous anthologies. 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, 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!

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.

THERAPY IMPROV!

globe-stress-ball-super-crop-2

Given the current historical moment, I find myself in need of humor born from innocence, not facing its own death on the gallows.* Realizing that today’s post was meant to be Part 2 of the poignant story begun last month, I nonetheless hope you’ll enjoy this station break from Doomsday programming, reflected in the arc of the post.

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It had been a Day. I’d spent it with a young man who’d punched a wall before our morning appointment, who sat silent and hurting before me for an hour, his knuckles raw; then with his mother, who fought the urge to beat the son who had been beaten as a child by her ex-husband and abuser. Then with a formerly neglected little girl almost paralyzed by the fear that her advocate and protector might be taken from her, any minute, by illness or a relative’s intervention.

I’d spent it with a teen whose biological father had abandoned her, who had made sexual allegations against her mother’s long-time live-in partner, then retracted them when faced with the possibility of a broken home, then attested to them again after investigations had been closed. I’d spent it debriefing with my supervisor about how to handle the information and the necessary DCYF call, as well as seeking advice on another volatile case, of a bitter custodial dispute, with the vilest he-said, she-said I’ve yet encountered.

Before, between, and after all that, I made calls and filed notes on those calls; closed two cases; worked to catch up on paperwork that by Wednesday had buried me in an avalanche, after I’d started the week with a clear desk and a clean slate; and participated in a group interview of a clearly gifted therapist—knowing, as I asked questions and made welcome, how low our team morale was, how hard the work of community mental health truly is, and how poorly appreciated, to say nothing of compensated, by our administration we all felt.

Then it was five o’clock, my last appointment of the day: a new-to-me client inherited from a recently defected colleague’s caseload, a small boy with a startling vocabulary and a lisp, brought in by his current guardian. “Look, it’s my stress ball!” he said, showing me a spongy tennis-ball-sized approximation of our planet. I asked if I could hold it. I gave it a squeeze and turned it around. “Oh, look!” I said, locating the blobby outlines of our country; I pointed to our misshapen corner of it. “There we are!”

“We’re not there!” he said. “Yes, we are,” I said, pointing again— “See? You’re wearing a red shirt and tennis shoes.” He drifted away from me and stood looking out the window. “What are you doing?” his guardian asked, bemused. He turned back to look at me in challenge: “I don’t see your finger!”

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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. * “Gallows humor,” for non-native English speakers, is humor conjured when prospects are grim.

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.

THIS ABOVE ALL

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3

 

As the year draws to a close, I find myself thinking a lot about the meaning of integrity. I call to mind those spiral-bound books with split pages that divide cartoon animals in thirds, such that they can be reorganized into mythical beasts: the head of an ostrich on the torso of an ape above the legs of a cheetah. Sure, they might be amusing to contemplate. Yes, they might have strange powers. But they are creatures at odds with themselves. So it is, I think, with those of us whose thoughts/words, feelings/values, and actions don’t align; ultimately our lives aren’t all that they could be. I don’t conceive of integrity as something we possess so much as something we are or strive to become: whole in our human lives.

Now, misalignment, at least in the cultures I know, seems to be the norm. Cogito, ergo sum? Thanks but no thanks, Descartes. I personally do not identify as a brain atop a body. Having said that, my experience of trauma certainly knocked me into disparate parts; trauma does that to people. And it can take courage to contend with that. So I’d like to dedicate this brief, philosophical year-end post to the kids I met in 2015 who, through beautiful insight and determination, came to counseling in search of their own integrity. The young man who looked deeply into my eyes and admitted to beating up his stepfather, triggered by a reminder of his own childhood abuse. The teens who cut themselves and suffered hailstorms of accusations, when they needed love and self-esteem. The little girl who wanted counseling, whose father said to me in her presence, “Counseling is for the simple-minded and the weak”—a girl who had the astonishing inner strength to tell him, simply and directly, she was angry. So many kids, so many stories. And because all grownups have stories, too, and were kids themselves, I dedicate this as well to them—even though I sometimes find them, I’ll admit, unbearable.

Another confession: every time I write, every sentence I write, tempts me to digress. One example in this case might be some reflections on the difficulty of giving and receiving love without integrity as defined above. There is so much to say, about this experience of learning in the present moment! Sometimes I worry about committing myself in writing to this or that idea, when language necessarily imposes limits, whereas my thoughts can feel infinite. And for every thought I have, I hear faint echoes, surging toward me, of things that people might say back, an audible tidal wave of affirmations, negations, opinions, reactions. In short, I get overwhelmed—by myself, by the world. Still, it seems a worthy project, and I look forward to sharing more stories in 2016. Meanwhile, Happy New Year.

Know Thyself.

STILLNESS IS THE MOVE

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.”

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