FIGURINES & HIGH-FIVES

 

 

Ten-year-old Gertie was beside herself one afternoon early this summer, because her sister was joining us as her guest. The last time had been a year prior; Amanda, two years older, had held herself with impeccable posture and poise on that occasion, allowing an ironic smile to play about her lips as Gertie, exclaiming, attempted to include her sister in her favorite activities. By asking arch and pointed questions, Amanda called attention to the immature nature of Gertie’s play and undermined her confidence as host.

This summer, however, Amanda was generous with her younger sister. She treated her kindly and played by her rules. Gertie delighted in her directive role and soon had us closing our eyes while she buried objects in my sand box for us to find. Feeling around in the cool soft spill of near-white particles, we uncovered shells and gems and fake fossils, cars and keys, dice and a dog dish, various animals, and little painted baby figurines: crawling baby, sleeping baby, baby with a blanket. Then it was Amanda’s turn to hide objects for us; and to help Gertie manage her impatience, her inclination to peek, I suggested that we leave the room and skip up and down in the long hall until we were summoned. That, she seemed to love. Skipping became part of every spell of waiting, sometimes with me, sometimes with Amanda.

Later in the summer, Gertie and I were out for a walk around the grounds—if such a term can be applied to a vast sea of asphalt with a shoreline of rough grass and scrubby trees—when I learned that she had never played Follow the Leader. Therein was a golden opportunity to offer her a healthy, sanctioned chance to take charge, since her interactions at school tended toward bullying behavior. Abused and shamed as a younger child by those she used to live with, she was hungry for acceptance and had a history of forcing herself upon her peers, neither respecting boundaries nor taking no for an answer. Notably, when given the role of leader, she offered me turns unprompted—a sign to me that it was, perhaps, serving as a corrective experience.

Follow the Leader followed us indoors and took up where skipping had left off, as a way of extending play beyond my small square office and into the hall. We walked in slow motion, and backward, and bawk-bawking like chickens. Gradually, inexorably, this turned into running laps.

For an “office-based therapist”—my term of self-introduction when we interview candidates for open positions, of which there are perpetually many; more on that another day—I run an awful lot of laps. And I feel, in doing so, a vertiginous awareness of what it used to be like to weigh almost nothing, my childhood body so light that I could nearly fly. I feel this as kids fly along beside me, colts beside a mare. I give it my all and sometimes even beat them to the far door or, back, to the wall where we land, smack, our hands planting hard.

Starting out, I don’t think Gertie was running for the pure joy of running; she was running to win, and with perfect competitive instinct, she forced me out of my own path, such that I would have had to physically push her to clear my way and run at full speed. I wasn’t going to do that, of course; I just trailed her, back and forth, wall to door to wall. When she announced she needed a break for water, I validated her awareness of that need. We’d stop for water, then start again.

And then something interesting happened. She said, “Go,” but let me take off on my own. Confused, I stopped. She directed me to run without her. So I did, back and forth. She sent me out alone again. This time, however, when I reached the door and turned, she started out from the wall and ran toward me, such that our paths would be crossing halfway. Instinctively, I reached for a high-five.

That became our new game: running separately, as if in a relay, and high-fiving each other in passing. For fun, I introduced variations: two-handed, to the side, down-low. Our palms met perfectly each time, a satisfying clap such as I have rarely known. As we passed my open office door, she must have had her eyes on the clock, for she started curtailing her circuit. Again, I was at first confused—was this a move to gain some advantage?—but she explained, “It’s almost time to go, so I’m shortening it.” So we ran shorter and shorter laps, clapping hands with increasing frequency, until at last we were circling each other, in a kind of do-si-do.

Gertie had gone through a prolonged angry phase over the course of the year, in which she proclaimed to hate her life and the world around her, especially her caregivers. There were exceptions, of course; but literally for months, she looked like she wanted violent revenge for every one of the many wrongs done her. She wore that look even while playing Follow the Leader. When we walked out to the lobby on the first day we ran laps, to rejoin her grandmother, she was wreathed in smiles.

I, too, felt wreathed—as if laurels had been woven and set upon my hair. Because again she had transformed her play, from competition to cooperation. And because I’d seen her face flushed and lit with its former, glorious light.

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“The Numbers Game” (July 2017) will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. 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. Thank you for reading!

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.

CLEAR-EYED AND COURAGEOUS

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The end of any year, but especially this one, can feel elegiac to many. For me there is no better answer within reach, to the litany of sorrows I could name, than to offer tribute to those who’ve inspired me in the past twelve months—thankfully also a long list. Here are just two.

My first tribute is to a mother of my acquaintance. A little over a dozen years ago, she contrived an ingenious way to save some of her income from her abusive partner, so that she could escape to a women’s shelter with their infant daughter. In the process, she lost a best friend because the friend feared retaliation for any show of support to her. The experience of trauma persisted for a decade, as the man haunted her life, until at last he died of an overdose. Now, never having found time to care for herself, she makes the effort to support her daughter’s ongoing grief over losing her father, whom she had barely known, whose death meant something very different to her.

My second tribute is to a girl of my acquaintance. A daughter in a different family, she recognized her stepfather’s instability long before her mother did and looked up the signs and symptoms of abuse to educate her mother in what was happening to them. She persuaded her mother to divorce the man who would, before they left, harass and molest the girl whose clear vision saw the truth, whose courageous spirit spoke out to make change. This girl-becoming-a-woman now wants to study the brain, maybe work in child development or forensic psychology. She wants to understand things. She wants to make sense of the world.

Certainly there were dozens of men and boys this year who moved and delighted me (including one eight-year-old I know who stated recently that he is now “obsessed with Canada”; the liberal-minded among you can probably guess why). Then there are those (men, women, and algorithms) who miss the mortal glory that surrounds them, profoundly confused by marketed images: made up, airbrushed, photoshopped, contrived, assessed, judged, “had,” bought, and/or sold to the highest or nearest bidder. After the year the world has had, after the year my country has had, after the slurs we’ve all been suffered to hear uttered by persons of influence, I feel inclined to celebrate the real beauty of the women and girls whom I’m proud to have met: their strength and grace of character; their intelligence and the light they carry, kindling within every cell, every smile, every look of comprehension, every gesture of warm and real humanity.

To them and to you, Happy New Year.

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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.

AS ABOVE, SO BELOW

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If Robert Frost were still of this world, could I persuade him to rethink his philosophy? Even as the ground is carpeted with evidence that “nothing gold can stay,” I hope this spring morning will light my way through the coming year. This moment of equipoise, when the chartreuse maple flowers that scatter the ground are equal to those still gracing the tree—I hope in darker moments to recall it.

Those moments do come—though they come less often, and I recognize them now for what they are. As above, so below; as within, so without. It’s as easy for people today to mistake their shadows, their trailing rainclouds, for something permanently, metaphysically wrong with them, as it was for people in times past to mistake epilepsy for demonic possession. I have learned, thankfully, to make connections between my physical and emotional states.

I know, if I wake in a seeming panic, to reflect on what I ate the day before. Too much sugar? Too much salt? I know, when I feel my steps grow heavy, that my body still struggles with wheat and dairy, that my system is still in rehabilitation.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, continues to be the holy grail of mental health interventions, but I feel it’s sorely lacking. In the “cognitive triangle,” thoughts evoke feelings that result in behaviors. Where is the body, in that model?

Research is now abundant, and still growing, about the effects of diet on anxiety and depression, the role of probiotics in emotional resilience, the fact that trauma gets stored in all our cells, not just in the brain. But in this market-driven culture, genuine wellness—bodily integrity, emotional stability—turns too little profit. For every news item about, say, the microbiome, there are thousands of ads for, as Michael Pollan put it, “edible foodlike substances.”

This is not to say that everything I feel emotionally is purely a function of my physical state, that I can live unperturbed so long as I avoid x, y, and z foods. For one thing, the picture is a little more complicated; making generally good choices may not, alone, correct for deficits present from birth or some exposure.

For another thing, we’re social beings; attachment is itself biological. Loss is still loss, grief is still grief—and hard as they are, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have no wish to be disaffected, to nod placidly to others as they come and go from my life. All I mean is that a kind of physical resilience helps steady me now, in a way it never did before. On stormy seas, I’m lashed to the mast of my health.