I identified myself as a reader at the same time I understood I was a self. I was at a sunny day camp which seemed quite far away from the city though it was not. I remember holding a book open before me under the sheltering high pine trees. Suddenly the words made sense. I saw pictures where I had seen dark code.
Now my daughter struggles to read. After waiting for her to catch fire, I realize that reading may not be her thing. Not that she can’t, or often won’t read, but at any moment the sheer delight of dipping into a a book does not compel her. Like dipping into a perfect body of water. I watch the laborious unnatural training of her mind and it surprises me. I find myself revisiting the lifelong companionship, luxury, addiction and pure pleasure of reading.
I want to open the world of my childhood. I want to introduce her to the families I knew. The words unfurl as I read to her, stored in the place age has not decayed. I cannot remember this morning’s ride but I can remember what comes next in Rush’s “First Saturday” or how the “All of A Kind Family” slept in cracker crumbs traded in the dark. She does, however, love for me to tell her stories. And so I grow with her. We create a new language, the Oliver stories. Marissa and Melissa, good and bad mermaids, Yoshi. a Japanese girl with a penchant for mischief.
The hunger to read has been, for me, like the hunger to practice medicine or be in nature. Only in the books of childhood do I see plots free of the romance tale. Girls are thinking and talking and feeling; they are using all their senses to become known in the world and explore history, cities, fields, cattle, spiders, farms.
Before “happily ever after” looms, featuring a princess and prince, or king and queen. run these stories. Many childrens books remind me of a time when my deepest being was absorbed in an enterprise of pure imagination. As I read I see girls wondering what they will be, or dancing on desks, or bossing their brothers. It is all about what we can be or do.
When I wait online at the school she attends, my daughter bursts out of the line with excitement. I wonder how long it will be before she peppers her definite needs with “like,” before she asks friends if she looks “fat” in her clothes, before she finds her anger terrifying. These books which guide girls quickly turn from exploration of self, other and the world into one story: a romance quest. The Holy Grail.
If there were one thing I wish she could grasp, it is that she is already complete. Everything which comes next will be misunderstanding. Books deepen and enrich us, they mirror and extend the understanding we already have. They also distort our goals, and our sense of an ending. Perhaps her body and dextrous hands will give her more pleasure than her imagining.
Perhaps she will be freer than I was. I could not imagine having a book and choosing to sew a satchel or go rock climbing. Her own extroverted nature may force her away from the distortions of introspection. She has so many friends she does not hide behind a book. Perhaps her knowledge will serve her better; she will grow like a tree, with stronger roots.
I started small, noticing and ignoring body art. One girl with a small diamond stud in her nose had a huge diamond engagement band on her finger. We spent a lot of time discussing the enormity of her ring. No mention of the nose stud. Then came a girl from outside the city, a suburb so conservative that I’d imagined it as filled with horses. Her therapy was long and complicated, involving many family members. Somewhere during therapy she got a tattoo- the most popular sort at that time. Chinese characters were inscribed in black at the base of her spine. They showed only when you might bend over to give a customer change, or if you were scooping ice cream for a summer job.
Then an artist came to see me with forearms decorated like a Minoan snake goddess from Crete. We discussed the tattoos. The why, the when (a break-up), the choice of subject matter.
Later I saw a drug addict in remission- a girl with a straight spine and a pierced tongue which flicked like a snake, in and out as she talked. I had to ask. The piercing was unnerving to me. She had chosen to pierce the visible juncture between speech and silence. Not to ask her about this choice seemed like denying part of therapy. Then I began to ask more, much more. The foot covered with henna that looked like a fortuneteller’s palm.
The second recovered addict saved her money working retail to tattoo installments of Alice in Wonderland all over her body. Not somewhere subtle, the nape of her neck, a shoulder blade wing. She was writing on her body- the body as slate, the body as book. She said it was a constant reminder ” not to fall down the rabbit hole.”
All signs have meaning. If someone shifts and exhales- I ask. I shied away from discussing piercing and tattoos- though I had always asked directly if a patient cut or burned themselves. As the world spins on its axis the culture changes. I can make no assumptions. To assume that body art is culturally neutral is, itself, a convenient assumption. So I ask. Everyone wants to be known. What they inscribe, what they cut, what they pierce, needs translation. Use your words, we teach our children.
Make no assumptions. Do no harm.
The oath of the psychologist.
Waking one morning with a feeling of alarm. I suddenly remembered the image of Miss Clavell who ran the orphanage in which the insouciant Madeline was tucked.