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Darkness Visible












“Hi how are you. Good? “ The answer comes right after the question.  I don’t need to speak.  That’s how many of my days begin when I drop my daughter off at school.  Parents cluster in pools of light, nursing coffees and trading gossip about vacations, teacher choices and new policies on parking.

I love that light- but I don’t live in it for long.  Like New England spring- happiness is elusive and luxurious. I move in and out of those pools of sun with friends and family.  But I don’t live entirely in light or even in sanity. My real life happens elsewhere, at work shuttered behind the city streets.

Last week I saw a man running with a long steel leg. He loped through his morning run in the suburbs like a mysterious creature. Half man and half steel. Miraculous and brave. The centaurs have come back.

A woman cycled past me on Brattle Street this summer while I waited for the camp bus. Crouched low on her bike, half an arm tattooed to the stump. My daughter observed ”she must have lost it in the marathon bombing. Otherwise the tattoos would have continued down her hand.”

Survivors are among us in all forms.  Some with wounds, some amputees.  Some with wounds that are invisible and harder to tend.

As a result of the terrorist attacks last year, the claims made to the Boston Strong fund are for PTSD, depression, or anxiety.

I treat invisible wounds. Scars on the soul largely go unseen.  Who stops a passerby and says “You look sad.  How was your day?” Who sits down with the person alone on the bench?

How can we tend the strangers among us?  Cutting and burning, even tattooing, show me how much we all want to be seen.  Internal pain must be transformed into something recognizable, demanding immediate care and attention.

No wonder that so many patients beg for a scar- a broken limb- the psychic equivalent of a scarlet letter on their forehead. No wonder they talk loudly to themselves.

How else is darkness, as William Styron, said to be “made visible?”

My father, an oncologist, taught me early on “The most serious wounds don’t look bad.  They grow inside you until you die from them.”  Doing psychotherapy is like doing neurosurgery in the dark.  We feel our way along, making connections. 

I try to decode the dusty Braille on the inside of a wrist.  The one word that flies up like a gleaming fish out of a sentence and sinks down.  The pearl inside the oyster’s slime.

Yesterday in the middle of a few things I stopped on-line for a coffee. From behind I felt a hand like a shaking butterfly, descend on my arm.  

“I don’t know if you are aware, but your purse is open?” It was an older woman, speaking with care.  A few years ago I would have brushed her off politely.

But now I thought- perhaps this is her one conversation, her only touch for the day.  I turned and talked about the wait and the line.

EM Forster said,” Only connect.” 

Do you talk to someone unsolicited?  Can you listen? Can you hold that thin thread of connection and ask them next week: : “How are you now?”

Ask them to step inside your circle of sun?


Pirates: Too Much Information?

Hard to know what to share with our children these days, especially when to children the news sounds like play. Or, is it the other way around? Navy seals have won the day. Trial awaits the pirates, boys and men.

Ironically, piracy, as a theme for children, has been hugely in vogue for birthday parties, Halloween costume, and storytelling. Magazines like Real Simple and Cookie run an articles for a pirate-themed party replete with fish and chips. And the high-end catalog, “Chasing Fireflies” offers both peace sign attire and pirate costumes for dress-up play and alternative fashion statements.

Why the popular return of pirates? Orlando Bloom, Kiera Knightly and Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean rule Disney and might have something to do with it. But why? These movies could have have flopped like Brad Pitt’s Achilles in Troy.  Why do some myths ignite our culture and others fizzle?

On the face of it, pirates seem to represent greed, aggression, and lack of impulse control. They they live outside the law. Are they symbols of the greed that has caused our economies to collapse? Maybe so. Pirates capture so many parts of our imagination.

Greed can be its own undoing. Children understand this early. We have to conquer our selfishness our we won’t have friends. If two children rip at a toy in a tug of war, play is over. Resources are limited. Sharing begins.

Pirates are also knuckle-headed—they provide comic relief in the land of the “all-bad.” Pirates are antiheroes, the Sancho Panza, the court jester who is not truly evil—maybe even good at heart, like the Pirates of Penzance, who would never harm an orphan. Unlike the monsters spawned from imagination who live under the bed or in nightmares, children enjoy pirates. Pirates can be conquered. Pirates can be tricked. As a recent children’ book extolling the virtues of parents explains “pirates are fools for gold.” Pirates teach us that greed can be recognized. Children’s pirates are ugly. They don’t look like us. They stand out the way a giant does and we recognize them from the knives between their teeth, their tall back boots, and their trusty parrots.

Pirates can represent the part of the child that is at war with civilization—the self that wants things and the self that needs people. Pirates also represent the power of the outsider. Girls may adore these movies because girls often live in their imagination without real role models to follow.  Much more fun to be a pirate, one might think, than Amelia Bedelia or Ramona the Pest!  Girls, in their minds, can ‘sail the seven seas’ and explore new worlds. How else to explain the incredible popularity of Dora, the formulaic cartoon explorer, who conquers Swiper and new territory daily with only a map, a backpack, and her own pluck.

As I heard from mothers in recent weeks, some chose to tell their children about the real pirates. They followed the capture of the ship and the triumphant rescue. Children feel safe when they see the President make wise choices. But they may also feel confused as they love their own excited play.

Children are not the only ones who find that the rules of life are not always fair. Perhaps it is time for Robin Hood, the ‘good pirate‘ to return….

Photo credit: katiew