Michelle Gordon is a full-time teaching assistant, wife and mother who has recently discovered the delights and rewards of writing. The cork has popped...the words are bubbling over...finally.
Messages in the Sand
Let me begin by saying that I’ve always believed in therapy – good therapy, that is. I discovered “Andrew” on my fourth attempt to find a compatible counselor. I’d been searching for someone who would challenge me with a lively approach to our therapeutic relationship, and someone who wasn’t so overscheduled that he could barely recall my name from week to week (much less the harrowing details of my life). Andrew was a Godsend – an intuitive, soft-spoken man with warm hazel eyes and a perpetual half-smile. I trusted him from the moment we met. And I always trust my instincts.
Therapist Number Two was a specialist in treating Vietnam veterans and regarded me warily from the other side of his big desk. Of course, it wasn’t his fault that he’d had little experience in treating my particular conflict. Perhaps if I’d pulled out a hand grenade or threatened to toss around some napalm he might have felt more at ease. Candidate Number Three had politely suggested I continue my quest after I impolitely suggested that he modify his tepid style. I took his advice, and that’s how I came to find Andrew.
At that time, several years ago, I was struggling to extricate myself from my emotional entanglement with “Josh” (Number One). Actually, that’s an understatement. It was the Mother of all entanglements, physically and psychologically. I had initially sought treatment with him to resolve a bout of depression and instead found myself caught up in something that was akin to a runaway train. Naturally I wasn’t inclined to discuss it with my husband and my friends didn’t know what to make of my predicament. How do you get therapy to treat your attachment to a therapist? Isn’t that like art imitating other art? Granted, I had made some progress on my own, but I still really hadn’t a clue where I stood in the proverbial tunnel. All I knew for sure was that I still couldn’t see the light at the end, and it was Andrew’s therapy that enabled me recover from Josh’s. Gently, he nudged me to explore the persistent sense of violation and supported me in my nascent awareness of Josh’s profound dysfunction.
In addition to counseling adults, Andrew also worked with a lot of children – ages two and up. He was highly respected in this capacity and frequently lectured on the subject of the unique challenges of working with emotionally fragile children. I loved to sit in the waiting room with the parent of the child he was working with and try to guess what was going on in the playroom. I’d hear squeals and laughter, yelling, jumping, bouncing, swearing, clapping – and the occasional sound of a ball as it thudded against the door. I’d smile to myself, then catch the mother’s (or father’s) eye and we’d smile at each other. He was so good with them…so endlessly composed and accepting.
Now, I’ve always had a healthy interest in the unconscious mind, especially the way it guides and influences our consciousness through dreams, fantasies, Freudian slips and hunches. The goal of therapy, as I understand it, is to close the gap between those two minds so that you don’t as often have to ask yourself, “What on earth motivated me to make that rash, self-destructive decision?” Instead, you are more likely to be able to say, “After carefully considering the options, I’ve decided that this is the best choice for me.”
We have much to learn from the unconscious realm, which seems to have at its disposal limitless wisdom, perception and patience. Sounds a bit like God, which is the explanation that makes the most sense to me. It’s comforting (albeit, frustrating) to know that even when I’m the most confused about my circumstances or baffled by my own behavior, there is some part of me that has access to the big picture.
That assurance was brought home to me wonderfully – and quite unexpectedly – one day during a session with Andrew.
I arrived early, as I usually did, and took up my place in the waiting room. I was feeling a little anxious because I didn’t have any particular topic in my head that I was prepared to discuss that day. Usually I walked in with some specific, thought-provoking issue that was guaranteed to keep me talking until Andrew made a point of checking his watch. I never felt offended by that because I could tell he was as engaged in the discussion as I was. I was grateful to have shared that time with someone who seemed genuinely interested in me – even if they were being paid to listen. Besides, I secretly felt an intense pressure to keep it alive, witty and spontaneous for all fifty minutes.
Perhaps he read something in my demeanor that day. Or maybe he’d already decided that he would suggest something different, but as soon his little client and her mother had exited through the door to the outside, Andrew ushered me into the playroom. A little wave of paranoia washed over me. Does this mean he was tired of hearing me prattle on about my problems?
The playroom was larger than I had expected. There was a forest mural painted on the wall at the far end which caught my eye immediately. To its right stood some shelves that were jam-packed-to-overflowing with toys. In the center of the room was a plastic half barrel that contained several balls of varying sizes and colors, and to the left of the forest a small area was roughly squared off from the rest of the room by a movable partition and a strategically placed cabinet. At the center of this space was an elevated table filled with fine white sand; I could see it through the gap between the cabinet and the partition. My eyes lingered there because I was wondering how he ever managed to keep it in the box when so many rampaging kids had access to it.
“That’s what you’ll be doing today,” he said, standing behind me. I spun around and looked at him.
“I want you to make a sand picture today,” he reiterated firmly in anticipation of my adult resistance.
“Okay,” I responded dubiously, trying to be a good sport. “What do I do?”
“If you open the cabinet there you’ll find lots of stuff to use. The secret is to pick the things that jump out at you and arrange them anyway you want in the sand.”
I walked over, opened the particle board doors and stood dumbly before the rows of miniature objects. It was an impressive collection. A small replica of Buddha sat with his back to the left corner of the middle shelf, along with other deities and fairytale figurines. Rustic churches, tiny cottages and barns occupied the rest of it. On the shelf above I saw little sets of circus animals, domestic animals, zoo animals, farm animals and sea creatures; and below there were vehicles, bridges, shrubs, fencing and tiny appliances like doll house accessories. There was even a set of pyramids. There were miniature families of all races and multiple generations, just waiting to spark someone’s imagination. Mine, for example.
“Just choose anything that seems to speak to you,” he prompted, since I hadn’t moved in several minutes. At this point, a few uncharitable thoughts began rolling through my head. Grownups don’t play with palm trees. I grabbed a pair of them off one shelf. My God, I’m paying for this. I reached out to a trio of dolphins that were wedged under an elephant.
“Just take your time,” said Andrew in the background.
I saw a little rocking and snagged that too. I’ve always loved them; I nursed my son in one for nearly two years.
There was just enough order and organization of the pieces so that I spied some driftwood lurking appropriately next to a flotilla of little boats and a huddle of whales. I took it. And then a little green turtle, although I had no clue at that moment why I selected her.
“How do you feel?” he asked with amusement.
“Uncomfortable as hell,” I answered, smiling. “I’m regressing.”
At some point he’d sat down in a nearby chair and now crossed his legs tranquilly.
My hands were full so I decided to turn my attention to the sand table. I dumped everything on top of a little plastic oven and instinctively picked up a paint stir stick that was waiting on the table’s edge. I began smoothing the fine sand with the length of the stick, erasing all the ripples and indentations left by others. I imagined how I might have played here as a child.
Andrew seemed thoroughly absorbed as he watched me set up my picture. I decided my scene should be an ocean one, especially since there were dolphins and a turtle to consider, so I built up the sand at one end of the box and it became the mighty Pacific. The shallow end became the beach. That’s where I put the rocking chair. Since I hate the sun, I put the palm trees directly behind the rocker so that it would be shaded and protected. The driftwood naturally seemed to belong at the feet of whoever was sitting in that rocker, so that’s where I dropped it. Then I looked at the dolphins, and planted them gleefully in the “water.” They were playing and having a wonderful time.
I stood back and surveyed it carefully. All that remained was the little green turtle. I picked her up and placed her to the left of the palm trees, angled toward the corner of the box as though she were just coming ashore. Then I just stood there. It was a simple scene and I started to wonder if its plainness constituted evidence of a low I.Q.
“Are you finished?” asked Andrew softly.
He jumped up, stepped toward my masterpiece and carefully inspected it from above. “Tell me about it.”
What’s there to tell? My internal voice was mocking. Then I shrugged, suddenly filled with hesitation. “Well…” I said, pointing to the dolphins, “those are some dolphins playing in the ocean and they’re very happy together.”
“They sure are,” Andrew said with admiration. “What about the driftwood?”
“That’s…” and that’s where it began to dawn on me what I’d done: I’d somehow created a metaphor for my life. The three dolphins – my husband, my son, myself – were busy living their dolphin lives, fully engaged in the present and enjoying each other. The driftwood, washed up on the beach at the foot of the rocker, was my past – the remnant of a dead relationship (Josh) that had once been something powerful. The ocean was the continuity of Time, always flowing, changing, rearranging…and the rocking chair held the essence of who I am – the mysterious part of me that watches the dramatic unfolding of events with confident and rational detachment.
Andrew smiled. He read the look on my face. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” he said.
I think I managed to nod.
“But let’s not forget your turtle!”
I looked down at her with wonder and in my excitement blurted out as though I’d known all along. “Oh, she’s the future! Look! She’s coming up onto the beach to lay her eggs!” And as I stared at her I could almost see her moving, pregnant with a message that was perfect – as it turned out – in its simplicity, for she’d successfully navigated through the rough sea, and was now crawling bravely across the sand to secure the rest of my life.