The Story in Everything

Psychologists are often asked why they became psychologists. I suspect the askers of this question are hoping for some kind of intriguing origin story. I always find it hard to answer, and I think that many of my past responses have not fully captured the essence of why I chose my profession. There was the cliche of wanting to “help people,” which of course was true. But there are so many other ways to do that. There was the fact that I always felt just a little bit different, and wanted others who felt similarly to know the world has a place for them. More recently, I’ve settled for the explanation that my interest in psychology began with the arts. I’ve explained that I loved reading and writing and acting before I ever decided to become a psychologist. I rationalized that analyzing characters and themes was part of being “psychologically-minded.” But that conclusion, too, fell short.

Today, I realized what was missing from all of my previous answers: I see everything in this world as a narrative. When I was a child, I tore the pages out of my Barbie coloring books, assembled them into a chosen order, and constructed a story. I taught my best friend how to play this game and let her know it was not enough to merely color in the pages. Growing up, listening to a music album from start to finish was an activity in and of itself. I noticed the shift in mood with each song– how one flowed into the next– and by the time Spotify came into existence, I was a master at making playlists. Friends and romantic partners threw songs together for me; I spent four hours deliberating the exact order in which to arrange the tracks and another thirty minutes for the title. It was a craft. In Hebrew school, my teacher told the stories behind every Jewish holiday. My peers nearly died of boredom. I recounted all of them to my mother on the ride home. Knowing that a piece of my life was rooted in an ancient story made my soul sing. From a very young age, I recall that my primary coping skill in any emotional situation was to think of myself as a book or movie character and narrate silently what I was experiencing. I did not know this was a coping skill. I did not do it on purpose. It was only very recently that I realized this was not a universal reaction to stress. But even at age six, I understood myself as someone part of a much bigger story, whose triumph through difficulty would be worth something, whose tolerance of distress was meaningful and said something about my character. To this day, I am embarrassingly nostalgic. I keep a “memory box” of every card and letter ever written to me, and when I rummage through it (at least once per year), I reflect on my life and relationships as chapters in an evolving narrative.

These days, I conduct psychotherapy and supervise a few psychologists-in-training (naturally, I was not satisfied by private practice– I had to be in a bustling training hospital where I could witness many others’ “stories”). In supervision, we talk about case conceptualization. Sometimes, we pause to build the case formulation together, carefully considering the origins of someone’s difficulties and the maintaining factors. It is the work of figuring out how the person makes sense. Despite sharing a diagnosis with millions of others, their story is theirs alone, and their treatment will be tailored to that story. And I still haven’t thought of anything I would rather do than help someone by understanding their story and empower them to continue writing it.

Do you think I could tell this story to someone I’ve just met?

I’ll probably stick to a sentence.

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Mother of Sorrows

I am the mother of sorrows; I am the ender of grief

-Paul Dunbar, “The Paradox”

Birthed out of pain, we soothed.
Birthed after loss, we lived.
Battling sorrows, they brought us;
their leftover scars, we forgive.

Their pride and joy—we stumble.
Apple of their eye—we look through
our own lens.
A lucky legacy we inherit;
its weight leaves welts in our hands.

Love was the first color we saw.
Love was the first ache we knew.
Our made-up stories
made sense of things.
A fraction of them are true.

Birthed out of love, we flourish.
Birthed out of longing, we give.
Lost in their sorrows, we found them;
their lives lodged within us, we live.

_____________

Written for the dVerse prompt: Poetics: Beyond Meaning or The Resolution of Opposites

This prompt felt especially meaningful to me because I think about paradox all the time in my work as a psychologist. When I practice Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), I use a helpful strategy called “entering the paradox,” in which I acknowledge the dialectics (seemingly opposing yet co-existing truths) that are present in a person’s life and help to make room for them. So much of life’s difficulties involve making sense of and accepting conflicting feelings, ideas, and truths.

If I Go

Go to the limits of your longing.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Rilke told me to go
to the limits of my longing.
Will there be
an end point there,
or does the path of pining
not expand with heat
and time and memory?

I am just afraid,
if I go,
there will be no arrival.

_________

Written for the dVerse prompt that asked us to write a quadrille (a poem of exactly 44 words) including some form of the word go. 

Pink (I Raised Red)

I am Red’s
carnation counterpart:
softened and smarter,
easily tickled
and unfazed.

See my babyface?
It unleashes a laughter
that can break things open.

I raised Red—
taught her
what was delicate,
taught her
she was delicate
and that’s a good thing.

I am not innocence,
but the reminder of it—
the flush of the cheeks
after the lock of the eyes,
a paint-stroke to the summer sky,
a cotton candy sugar high,
the faithful fondness that remains
to grieve the old flames
when Red runs out.

____

Written in response to this dVerse Poetics prompt, which asked us to write a poem from the perspective of a color. Somewhere along the line, I think my poem became autobiographical in addition to being a personification of pink!

Putting out Fires

In the spirit of trying new things, the piece below is my first-ever attempt at flash fiction. It is a response to today’s dVerse Prosery prompt. The instructions were to “write a piece of flash fiction of up to or exactly 144 words, including the given line.” The line given was:

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head
.

-William Butler Yeats, ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’

When he hung his jacket nonchalantly after a two-day disappearance, it should hardly have been a surprise. It had been four months since they had spoken. Of course, there were the obligatory greetings exchanged upon entering and exiting rooms and the “Want one?” respectfully muttered when one of them sat down with a bowl of red grapes, for which they still shared an affinity. These things didn’t matter, but then again, they did—the only remaining glimpses of togetherness.

“I went out to the hazel wood because a fire was in my head,” he said matter-of-factly, his stoicism too much for her sensitive soul to bear. She pressed her toes into her memory foam slippers, as she had learned to do when resisting the urge to emote.

“Don’t burn our house down,” she whispered, turning away to exit, red grapes in hand.

Percussed, it survives

Windows, forgoing a curtain,
brag on our behalf.
New York, only a backdrop,
is upstaged.

Feet, sore and sockless,
swiffer the old wooden floor,
collect relentless dust.
The routine, dependable,
is a lack of one.

some sort of plum wine still on my tongue
some sort of sorry still lodged in my throat,
some sort of scripture I read when I need to,
by some sort of G-d to mistrust and then plead to

There is a song that always feigns its ending.
The drumbeat, its glorified crash cart.
Percussed, it survives.

shoulders bare attract a stare,
the counterfactuals glare,
the flowers grew and died everywhere

Flowers get hung up to dry somewhere.

Consonant

The clear vowels rise like balloons
-Sylvia Plath

The city sidewalk opens at the sight
of something estranged and beautiful.

There is no moving forward,
only observing,
absorbing:
a glimpse of forest-green umbrella.
a hint of glum smile.
a flash of rosy memory.
Expansive but rarely enunciative,
the old voice echoes:
the marvel of chocolates,
the complexity of mangos,
the hassle of gift wrap,
the importance of laundry,
the mundane things about which to rejoice,
the painful things about which to stay silent.

The city sidewalk closes like a consonant.
There are café menus to pretend to admire
and lunch on the afternoon agenda.

___

My response to dVerse prompt “Beginning at the End,” in which I chose the last line of a poem and wrote an original poem as a continuation of where the poet left off.

The Way We Get By

I love a good poetry prompt. dVerse gave a prompt to write a quadrille (a 44-word poem) using the word “way.” Here goes.

The Way We Get By

The way a laugh punctuates
a somber sentence, kicks it
in the gut.

The way people leave us
but also leave us letters
in the third drawer, in the
mint green box.

The way songs will sing
themselves once we forget
where they’re from.

Sedentary

Sedentary

My body once experimented
with what it was capable of.
My thighs remember the proud finality
of a grand plie,
how their muscles brought it into being.
If tested, my heels will recite
the five positions
like a calendar knows the months of the year.

But the one-two-three
of a pas de bourrée
tires of its rhythm;
toes reach for something more
than a shuffle-hop-step away.

The resignation of muscles
is consequential.
The day doesn’t move
unless I do.
The minutes collapse
unless I breathe them forward.

The weight of the week is crushing.
The year has no sympathy at all.

Now I stretch my arms
to a familiar ceiling
and balance myself
on cold ground,
experimenting with what I am capable of.

My eyes surrender to morning light
before accommodating it.
My hands begin to grasp at things
I’d rather not hold.

The weight of the hour is heavy.
The warm-up becomes the dance.

The resignation of muscles
is consequential.
The day doesn’t move
until I do.

Chickens and Wheelbarrows

Late September Rain*

Chickens and wheelbarrows
are poised
for a poem, but they’re not
everything.

so much depends
upon
the wieldiness of water,
the way it falls
or doesn’t
in certain contexts.

the source of the wheelbarrow sequel:
a distant companion calculating
your hour
singing the consequence
of unshared rain.

*Based on a prompt from a distant companion and the poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens