Lush

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Artist unknown, courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

“How was school today, Michelle?” Her mom was dishing up her casserole of the day as she spoke.

“That’s too much!”

“You need to eat enough or you’ll lose more weight.” Her face scrunched up as she extended the plate across the table.

“You can’t make me eat more than I want!” She took it but had no intention of stuffing herself. She didn’t even like her mom’s cooking. Mushy dishes of overcooked pasta with some kind of cheese on top.

“You used to love my tuna-noodle surprise!” Her little brother Tommy giggled and said, “Sa-prise!”

“Whatever!” She poked at the heap with her fork and began picking out the peas and putting them into her mouth one by one.

“Young lady, don’t be rude to your mother!” Bill glared at her. She studiously avoided his gaze and kept her face a mask. He was a jerk. She didn’t know what her mom saw in him. She wanted to yell at him to leave her the fuck alone, but that would make him look at her with his creepy smile.

“Bill, remember what I said.” Her mom looked at him, darting her eyes away from the table. Trying to play peacemaker, probably. Why was this guy over here all the time anyway? She knew he was staying over nights but they always acted as if he’d stopped by for breakfast early in the morning. In the same clothes, riiight!

She pushed the food around, nibbled at the pieces of tuna she could separate out from the goop and noodles. When her mom and Bill got into a heated discussion about how he had no right to discipline her kids, she slipped out of her chair and using her paper napkin, in one quick motion swept the food into the garbage.

Sitting on her bed doing homework she felt at peace for the first time since she got home. The girls she knew said they hated homework, but she loved getting lost in the books, in the math problems, the history lessons, the American and English literature and the science. She also loved the A’s. Her good grades were something that belonged to her and not to anyone else.

She heard Tommy having his bath down the hall, Mom playing with him with bath toys while trying to clean behind his ears. Michelle gave him his bath sometimes. It was okay. If Bill ever volunteered to help him, she’d quickly volunteer and do it before he could get into the small bathroom. She thought maybe he was probably a perv.

They were reading Huckleberry Finn in English right now, and she loved the adventures he had on the river. Where were his people who should have watched after him? He could just take off and no one even looked for him. She thought this might be nice. She knew that there were a lot of bad people out there, though, and runaways who went to New York often ended up turning tricks for some skeevy pimp just to have a meal and somewhere to sleep.

The house was quiet now and she yawned. A quick trip to the bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth and she got into bed. She turned out the light and lay there trying to let go of her worries about the family. Even though her parents had divorced last year, her dad had always been there. She could call him, and every other weekend she’d stayed at his apartment and they’d done fun stuff like going to museums or shopping or to the movies. Now he was gone, dead and buried just a few weeks ago, and she wondered what was her life going to be like.

There was a creak in the hall and she sat up, listening intently. She saw the dark form of Bill in her doorway and get larger as he came in.

“I just came in to say goodnight, and tell you I’m sorry I told you off at the table.” He sat on the bed. “I want your mom to be okay, and her life is hard right now.”

She shrank to the other side of the bed, not wanting to say anything and wishing he’d just go.

Then she felt him touch her hair and heard him whisper, “Your curls are so…lush.”img_0116

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For the Daily Post

Have You Heard?

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As she walked down the long hall to French class, her head felt crowded with the possibilities. What if she gets a brain tumor? What if her mom marries her skeevy, loser boyfriend? What if she fails today’s French quiz after missing so much school, between hanging out at the hospital, and then the wake and funeral? It had felt to her sort of as if everyone had been staring at her as she walked from the bus. Could they tell she was now different than everyone else?

Asseyez vous, mes élèves!” sang out Mme Pierce at the front of the room as Michelle slid into her chair and stuffed her backpack onto the rack under the seat. For the next 20 minutes she pored over the questions and checked her answers. It actually wasn’t that hard.

Merci bien, Mademoiselle Harris,” said Mme Pierce, adding softly, “Comment ça va?” with a gentle smile as she came down the row collecting papers. She shrugged, tried to smile but it felt more like a sneer, and she looked away. She felt a weird sensation, almost like nausea, but more like the homesickness she felt at sleep-away camp.

“Écoutez!” From the front of the room, Mme Pierce enthusiastically launched into the lesson of the day.

She turned to the page in the book they were covering but her mind wandered. Just this morning as she was opening her locker, one girl whispered to another across the hall, “Have you heard that Michelle Harris’s dad just died of a brain tumor?”

Her face burned now with the memory. How lame! No one had said a single word to her this whole day. Except for Mme Pierce. Maybe she actually cared. A tear slid down her cheek and splashed onto the textbook.

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Namasté

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For the Daily Post

Success

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She leaned her forehead against the cold metal of her locker, wondering what she should do next. Mrs. Carter said she could go home, but her mother would be at the hospital and her little brother would be at the day care. A bell rang and kids came streaming out of classroom doors and flowed past her laughing and talking, clutching their books, animated and unaware of her. The polished floors squeaked with the rubber of their sneakers. She turned away and fumbled with the lock, failing to get the combination right until the third try. As the door opened, her mirror swung into view and she saw her face. Skin pale and wan, eyes rimmed red, hair curling wildly as it always did, mouth grimly set and devoid of color. She pulled out her backpack and found her makeup bag. She grabbed the silvery pouch, shoved the backpack deep into the locker and slammed the door. Just as she turned on her heels to head for the girls’ bathroom, she bumped into someone.

“Sorry,” she mumbled.

“No prob,” said a towering guy with bad skin and a nice voice. “My bad.”

“It’s okay,” she said and tried to smile at the boy she’d never seen before. He wore a varsity jacket. Basketball. No surprise being he was so tall. “See you,” she added, hurrying to the bathroom to get out of the awkwardness.

“I sure hope so,” came the voice as she pushed open the door and almost ran in.

She set her makeup bag on the counter and took another look at herself. The pallor was gone and her cheeks were as pink as if she’d already put on her blusher. She leaned against the counter, wondering what she should do next. It wasn’t going to be an easy day. She put her hands through her long hair, combing the stubborn curls with her fingers. She’d been brought to the office to take a call from her mother. They had this stupid rule about cells in the classroom, and she’d had hers confiscated too many times to bring it out to check for texts or leave the ringer on.

Yesterday her dad had had brain surgery and they’d all been there, except for Tommy who was too little to be allowed in. Mom, her boyfriend Bill, her aunt Mary and Mom’s best friend Alice. Dad always said they’d had a friendly divorce, and she supposed this was proof. The doctor had come out in his green scrubs, just like on tv, cap on his head and mask down around his neck. The surgery was a success, he’d told them. They’d gotten the tumor and he had an excellent chance to recover fully.

Dad had looked really funny last night as they wheeled him from post-op to recovery, wearing what looked like a big white shower cap on his head. He’d smiled at her and she’d squeezed his hand, and he’d told them he felt great.

“See you, kid!” He’d said with that funny, crooked smile.

And then Mom was leaning in to give him a sort of hug and kiss him, and they’d all said, “See you!”

But that was yesterday. Today he wasn’t doing too well, Mom said with tears in her voice. Something had gone wrong. He was unconscious and they weren’t telling her anything but acting like it was really bad. His face was swollen, her mom had said.

“You can come,” she said, “but I don’t want you to feel you have to. If something at school today is important, stay. I’ll let you know if anything changes.”

She played that over as she put some gloss on her lips and pressed them together. Yeah right. If anything changed she’d be pulled out of class again. Forget that. And she took her things and walked out and headed for her locker. Opened it in a flash, stuffed the pouch into her backpack, swung it onto her shoulder, and slammed the locker closed.

She strode down the hall, oblivious to anyone else around, and out the front door of the school. The sun was shining fiercely. She rummaged into her backpack and pulled out her Metrocard and her cell.

“Mom? I’m coming up there. Tell Dad I’m coming, okay?

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For The Daily Post

Innovations and Learning Every Day

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On January 1, 2017 the NBC News app Breaking News closed down. I checked it several times daily for the latest news and updates on current events. Okay, I checked it compulsively! So when it went away, what to do? I chose to get apps from BlogLovin‘, Flipboard and the venerable BBC. Sure, I do still read news stories, but now I’m perusing sone great blogs and learning new things. All 3 apps invite you to select areas of personal interest so what you see is curated for you. Always stashing promising recipes on Pinterest, I’m pinning cool-sounding recipes like crazy from blogs I never would have seen before.

In this new year, so much new information and many new things abound, as blogs I’m visiting this year so far prove out. I’ve read about:

  • Cai Guo Qiang, a New York artist, has produced some incredible daytime pyrotechnics displays utilizing not just gunpowder but organic vegetable dyes with fantastic results. The photo headlining this blogpost today features “Remembrance” from a Shanghai performance. Learn about a Netflix documentary on Cai here.
  • On Craft Gawker, I found a free, sweet sleeping fox painting by Hungarian artist Panka to use for wallpaper on my iPad and iPhones.
  • I love foaming hand soaps, but they get used up so fast. But wait, you can refill them yourself! I learned how to do it here, using any delicious-scented hand soap of your choice. It took Goo Gone to fully remove the label, but worth it.
  • An innovative new hairdryer (Dyson) that promises great results for around $400. Probably good but just too costly. When hairdressers start using them in my salon, I’ll think about it.
  • A new countertop cooking device called an Instant Pot that serves as rice cooker, slow cooker, steamer and pressure cooker (and even more). Not sure about this one yet. I still remember my mother’s beets-on-the-ceiling story.
  • Mindful Eating as a blending of Buddhist mindfulness and therapeutic treatment of compulsive overeating. Definitely something to implement this year. (Mindfully drinking a very tasty cherry, lemon, grape spirulina Vanilla Vinyasa smoothie as I write.)
  • What I should put in my gym bag. This is a very useful post that I’ll start to implement for Monday’s gym workout.
  • The five dirtiest things you touch every day. Yikes! Who knew that virtually 100% of shopping cart handles have E. coli!

I’d love to hear which apps and blogs you, my much-appreciated readers and subscribers, recommend! Please comment here so we can all learn. Thank you!

Namasté

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Revisiting Compassionate Listening

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In the two years since I first published a post on compassionate listening, I’ve had many opportunities, both personally and professionally, to experience how very essential to our wellbeing and our relationships compassionate listening truly is.

Whether our listening involves another person face to face, on the phone, or via text or email, or just watching a speaker on TV, we can miss a lot if we aren’t giving what we hear (or consume electronically) our full attention. True wisdom mandates we really attend to the other person openly, empathically and with kindness.

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I have encountered two more potential impediments to compassionate listening and both relate to aging that I experience in my work as a psychologist practicing psychotherapy. Because I’m now a Medicare provider in an area with fewer such providers, my psychotherapy practice embraces more older men and women than ever before. As I and those around me get older I’ve had many personal experiences with these listening impediments as well.

The first impediment is impaired hearing in which the listener mishears or fails to hear all our words and “fills in” what they think we said, sometimes getting it very wrong. Later someone one tells us emphatically that we said thus and so, perhaps something very contrary to our intent or even tragically so, creating a conflict we must now try to resolve, a potential distraction to the potentially sensitive work at hand. It can be extremely frustrating to both speaker and listener for the communication to break down simply because one or both parties can’t hear as well as they think they do. While it can be amusing, as the photo below illustrates, usually communication failure due to hearing problems is far from funny. It’s embarrassing and frustrating and interferes with friendly interactions.

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The second impediment is the increasingly frequent word-finding difficulty most older people experience. We all do this from time to time, and as we get older it happens with greater frequency. Speakers may pause as they search for certain words or familiar phrases, creating gaps in the narrative. A frustrated listener might quickly offer suggestions, and this can be perceived as a failure to respect the speaker’s competency or autonomy.

Another variation on the word-finding phenomenon is the speaker reaching into his or her vast vocabulary database, as it were, and pulling out a similar but incorrect word. image The similarity may be sound (e.g. tractor for factor). It may be the way the word begins or ends (shrimp for sharp), or relate in some other way we cannot fathom as the speaker struggles to get a point across. The listener then wonders what this is supposed to mean and may ask. The annoyed or frustrated response may follow, “You know what I mean!” Perhaps we do, but what if we don’t?

Compassionate listening involves seeing and feeling the struggle that others are experiencing and giving them time and space to find their way. If they grow silent with overwhelm or discouragement, or say, “Forget it!” we might ask, “Want me to try to help you with what you’re trying to say?” If they ask us to suggest a word, we should do so, but with the tentative deference suggesting we leave it to them to confirm or reject our suggestion. I find it helps to offer something like, “I’m having trouble hearing what you’re trying to say. My fault. Would you please try again?”

As we ourselves get older we probably will do the same sometimes. Our compassion for others with these difficulties will help us be compassionate towards ourselves if we fumble to express ourselves so that our listener understands. And if we have developed compassion towards ourselves by practicing Metta, or loving kindness, in our meditation practice as well as our daily interactions, we will naturally feel more compassion as we listen.

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Namasté

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What is Psychotherapy?

 

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My Manhattan office

In New York City where I practiced for over twenty years, it seemed as if everyone knew what psychotherapy is, even if they hadn’t ever experienced it personally. Occasionally I’d meet with an older patient whose primary physician or psychiatrist had referred them to me for treatment, and they’d say something like, “I don’t know why I’m here or what I’m supposed to do.” A discussion would follow, and soon we’d be “doing psychotherapy” every week. But many elderly people are psychotherapy-savvy, a case in point being a ninety year old woman in New York who had undergone a lengthy psychoanalysis fifty years before she came to me to address a current issue.

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The techniques I have employed throughout my career, including the newer ones I’ve learned along the way, offer the individual an opportunity to explore experiences and articulate thoughts and emotions never before expressed or if so only incompletely. When someone opens up aloud, insights and meanings often become more clear. I also use the session time to offer information, often referred to as psychoeducation, about the science and processes at work with emotion, cognition, memory, identity, consciousness, and perception. Sometimes I explain the mechanism by way certain medications work to alleviate symptoms and why sometimes they cause other problems.

Not long ago, I closed my New York office, after several years of careful planning and preparation, and opened an office in the college town of East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. I’m fortunate to work with an excellent psychiatrist who sometime refers patients to me, and I find myself explaining again just what psychotherapy is. In the early days, I devote session time to asking questions about the individual’s history, family of origin, and what brings them in. The answer to the latter often is simply, “The doctor said I should see you, so I’m here.” When someone relates certain problems, I will administer a questionnaire to clarify symptoms and experiences.

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So these days, I’m explaining psychotherapy a little more often, and helping shed a light on experiences that have baffled, frightened, confounded or annoyed my patients. I’m describing how certain medications treat depression and why they aren’t good for people with the mood swings of bipolar disorder. I’m cataloging symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and helping patients gauge how much those symptoms interfere with functioning and their overall quality of life. Sometimes just asking a question about obsessions triggers access to a deeper emotional issue never before spoken to another. As I was psychodynamically trained, I enjoy helping a patient explore a dream for its value in clarifying issues, past and current. I take my role as therapist and guide along this most challenging journey very seriously.

As we prepared to move out of New York, I considered retiring. For about five minutes. I got a late start on my career as a psychologist so there’s a practical, financial incentive to continue, but there’s an even more important reason I am still actively working as a clinical psychologist who provides psychotherapy: I love the work. I enjoy meeting new people and sitting down with them to see what we can do together to alleviate their distress, resolve their conflicts, arrive at healthier alternatives to their problematic habits and behaviors, and find greater and deeper meaning in their lives, both in terms of the past, the present, and into the future.

I find it to be a great blessing helping people traverse very intense points on their path, such as dating, marriage or divorce; pregnancy, miscarriage, or birth; seeking, losing, improving or getting new jobs; illness, accident, treatment, death and grief, and as the late death and dying pioneer Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross taught us, acceptance. Acceptance of what has been and of what is, even when we wish it were different. Acceptance of what we’ve done and who we are, and acceptance of our ability to learn and grow and change despite the past, even though it can be extremely challenging and a lot of hard work.

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I alway end these posts with the Sanskrit word namasté, which basically means, “The goodness in me bows to the goodness in you.” And so it is.

Namasté,

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Blogging as Sonnische: 2015 in review

WordPress is awesome! Easy to use and nice to look at. If you’ve thought about starting a blog of your own, I hope you will try WordPress. They really make blogging a snap. I write most of my posts on my iPad.

I received an email today giving my blog’s statistics, and I thought I’d share them here. Isn’t it curious that my post “The Joy of Aging” was my most well-received?

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WordPress says, “The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.”

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,600 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 27 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.