Learning How to Wish Wisely
A Letter to Adam ( Saturday, 10 April 1993) There’s no easy way of keeping The Lofty Chronicles current, especially when it comes to the ongoing interpersonal work concerning Adam’s abuse of the two girls a year ago at this time. But to not at least refer to that work would leave an artificial and misleading vacuum in these pages.
I sent the following letter to Adam, for example, after a rather spirited meeting between him, the folks living here at Light Morning, and Doro, as a representative of the wider neighborhood. The context is Adam’s pending move back to Roanoke–a halfway home, if you will, between his intense therapy work in D.C. over the past couple of seasons, and a closer re-integration into the neighborhood.
“I want to share with you that I felt Friday evening went well. It probably didn’t unfold quite the way anyone expected. But if the intent was to continue our processing, and to involve others (such as Doro and Jo) in that circle in a meaningful way, our efforts were successful.
“I’m also feeling the need to briefly recapitulate and expand the point of view that I have been advocating the last couple of times that we’ve talked. My initial reservations about your imminent return–imminent in the sense of time and/or proximity–were based on a perception that your empathy was still constricted (lack of expressed remorse, at least to Lauren, Joyce and I, plus your apparent inability to anticipate and appreciate the concerns of the neighborhood), and that you’d be coming back into an environment that would almost surely include a strong dose of rejection and stress.
“Since I pretty much share your understanding that your activities with the girls grew out of a combination of impaired empathy, high anxiety about rejection, and reduced ability to handle stress, I have had some apprehensions about your return to just such an environment. My concerns are both for your own well-being, and for the possibility (however slight) of a recurrence of your problem. This concern has been tempered, however, by a recognition of the impressive therapeutic efforts you’ve made over the past six months or so.
“Last Friday evening, however, I was more than a little dismayed by a stance that you and your therapist seem to be taking–namely, that there is no possibility of recurrence and that my fears are ‘ridiculous and absurd.’
“I was outraged by these assertions, and told you so, with more than a little heat. While I appreciate your need to reassure yourself and us and the rest of the neighborhood that ‘it can’t happen again,’ your adamant and uncompromising stance only serves to deepen my reservations and shake my faith in your therapist.
“My basic impression of Friday night is that you were trying to ‘sell us’ on a belief that the possibility of recurrence is non-existent. Again, your strategy is understandable and, for the most part, I agree that the likelihood of your falling back into a pattern of abuse is quite negligible.
“But to take an absolutist position and say that such a possibility is non-existent is, from the place where I view the world, both unwise and untrue. Untrue, for the reasons mentioned above; and unwise, because a good salesman always strives to listen to his prospective clients, and to take their perceptions, needs, and reservations seriously, rather than dismissing and/or attacking them.
“Besides, there’s an inherent contradiction in your insistence that your problem is already behind you. If there’s no possibility of a recurrence, why are you planning to spend another 2-plus years in a therapeutic program in Roanoke?
“Finally, I deeply believe that your assertions are not only unwise and untrue, but are also dangerous. If you convince yourself that ‘it can’t happen again,’ you run the risk of blinding yourself to the warning signals of recurrence.
“‘It can’t happen again’ translates too easily into ‘it can’t be happening again.’
“Turning a blind eye to the unpleasant and/or the impossible is a good way to get blind-sided.
“I don’t at all want to diminish the significance, Adam, of the inner healing work you’ve done and are doing. Nor, once again, do I believe that a recurrence is much of a likelihood. I’m simply urging you to find the strength and the wisdom to chart a creative middle course between your need to offer reassurances to us (and to yourself), on the one hand, and your recognition, on the other, that the roots underlying your symptoms are deep, tangled, and tenacious, and that you’ll be wrestling with those roots, and with their various symptomatic outgrowths, for a long time to come.
“This is where we can all find common ground. We’re all facing compulsive tendencies, murky guilts from the past, deep needs for healing and forgiveness. I pray that this community and neighborhood will rise to the challenge of owning and assimilating our shadows, rather than projecting most of them out upon you. I admire your courage in presenting us with this opportunity.”
Lauren’s First Finished Book ( Thursday, 15 April 1993) Lauren proudly announces today that she has just finished reading her first full-length book, front to back, first page to last. She has quite a few reading projects going on simultaneously these days, all at various stages of completion. She’s a chapter away from finishing Alice in Wonderland, for example.
But the honor of “first finished book” goes to Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Disgusting Sneakers. I’d never heard of Encyclopedia Brown before. Apparently he’s a kid detective. The book is part of the Weekly Reader series that came in last year.
Myra was over the other day, and instead of playing with the Barbie dolls together, she and Lauren each picked out a book to read. Myra selected Encyclopedia Brown, but only got half way through it before having to go home. Spurred on by this bit of friendly reading rivalry, Lauren promptly picked up the book and read it cover to cover.
Sleuthing is a popular theme these days. A week or so ago, Lauren was deeply immersed in Freddy the Detective (“the best book I’ve ever read”). And her favorite computer program (“Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?”) is a world geography course, cleverly disguised as a private-eye, chase-the-crooks-across-the-continents game.
Perhaps it’s age-related, and the skills and qualities exercised by a master detective–tracking down clues, thinking things out, solving problems–correlate with those being developed by children of Lauren’s age.
As a postscript, it turns out that I’m not completely tuned in to contemporary children’s literature. Several days after reading about the case of the disgusting sneakers, Lauren is browsing through the shelves of the Roanoke library and comes upon a whole series of Encyclopedia Brown titles.
“There are at least eleven of them, Dad!” she exudes, on her way to the circulation desk to check one of them out.
Wishes ( Friday, 16 April 1993) I’m sitting in the van with Lauren, in the parking lot of Radio Shack. Joyce has gone into the store to fine-tune her selection of a tape player/radio for Lauren’s birthday. I’m distracting Lauren while Joyce shops for her present. Next stop on our itinerary is the Roanoke airport. My mother Hope is arriving from California for the festivities.
“If you could have your choice,” Lauren asks, “what would you want–a million, million, million dollars or as many wishes as you wanted?”
“That’s easy,” I reply. “I’d take the wishes. Then if I wanted some money, I could just wish for it.”
“Yeah. I’d take the wishes, too. And do you know what I’d wish for?”
“I’d wish that I could go into any story, like the stories we’re reading now, and become part of that story for as long as I wanted, and change it around however I wanted to, and then be able to come back out of it again at any time.”
“That would be a fun wish. What else would you wish for?”
“I’d wish for a flying carpet and to be able to fly.”
“Why would you need to be able to fly if you had a flying carpet?”
“Because if the flying carpet got tired and needed a rest when I was going somewhere, I could just get off and still keep on flying.”
“What else would you wish for?” I ask.
“That I had lots and lots of money and I’d give it all to the poor people. You think that’s a good idea?”
“I don’t know. What else?”
“I’d wish that all the food that is bad for me is really good for me, and that all the food that is good for me is good for me, too.”
“That I could become any age I want to, and that I could live as long as I want to live. How ’bout you?”
“Well, I guess my first wish would be for the wisdom to wish wisely.”
“Me, too,” she replies. “That would be a good wish.”
“Maybe that’s what we’re doing here,” I muse. “I mean here on this planet. Learning how to wish wisely. Maybe all those magic stories are true, and we can have just about anything we wish for. The only thing is, it takes a long time before we begin to see that we’re already getting what we wish for. Once we see it, we can learn to wish more wisely.”
“But,” Lauren objects, “I’m wishing that you and me and Mom and Hopie could be at the Western Sizzlin’ salad bar right now, and not have to wait for it to happen.”
“You wished it pretty well, though,” I remind her. “You were the one who really wanted to go to Western Sizzlin’ and you kept after us until we agreed. And now we’re almost there. Look, here comes Joyce. We’re off to the airport to pick up Hopie, and the next stop after that is the salad bar. Your wish is just about to come true.”
Ironically, by the time we get to Western Sizzlin’, Lauren is so revved up that she eats too much and/or too fast. After a long retreat in the rest room she comes back with a queasy look on her face.
“I’m never going to eat here again,” she exclaims.
I don’t have the heart to remind her of our earlier conversation, and of the long, slow, and pricey journey of learning how to wish wisely.
Graphic Design (Monday, 19 April 1993) Here’s one of Lauren’s recent drawings. The original is much larger (8 ½ X 11). Lauren told me that she drew the cluster of circles first. Then, after she’d colored them in, they reminded her of balloons, so she added the strings. Finally, she decided the balloons needed some background, which is how the apartment building came into the picture.
Lauren’s Rich ( Wednesday, 21 April 1993) Lauren celebrated her birthday yesterday afternoon. She had 16 friends over. We picked up all the public school kids in our van when the bus dropped them off by the pond. Those from Blue Mountain were driven in by their parents.
Toby and Rosie couldn’t come–the former due to possible appendicitis; the latter has chicken pox. Sage made a cameo appearance; he’s recovering from pneumonia. Thank god for the good weather. I would have had to scramble to entertain 16 kids inside, most of whom had already been cooped up in school all day.
When Alice came for her children toward the end of the party, she said, “When I picked up Myra here last Saturday, after she’d spent the night with Lauren, and we were driving home, she said, ‘You know, Lauren’s rich.’
“‘ How do you mean,’ I asked her.
“‘Well, she has a nice room, and a big green yard, and a garden you can play in, and people in different houses, like Ron and Marlene and Tom, that she can visit whenever she wants to. She’s rich.'”
According to normal economic indicators, we live so far below the poverty line that we don’t even show up on the radar screen. Yet we feel anything but poor. Myra, in her own way, was picking up on some of the values that are slowly emerging here. A new definition of wealth.
Four Girls in a Hammock ( Saturday, 24 April 1993) It’s Easter Sunday. David and Mary are having a potluck supper and bonfire for some of the neighborhood. Wes comes, too, and brings Rose. The kids are running around, having fun in a rough and tumble sort of way.
We eat supper. Dusk falls. And the gathering’s center of gravity shifts to the fire circle.
After a long while, I’m ready to head for home. I look for Lauren and at first can’t find her. Then I notice that the four girls–Lauren, Myra, Rose, and Claire–are cuddled up in David and Mary’s big hammock, talking quietly together.
Maybe it’s the twilight and the fire. Maybe it’s the contrast with the boys, who are still rough-housing around in the woods. Maybe it’s some sixth sense that I’m able to tune into. Whatever it is, any thought of leaving immediately vanishes. Something very special is going on in that hammock; something I don’t even dream of interrupting.
So I go back to the fire circle and continue my conversations.
Some 45 minutes later, other parents finally make the move to bring the evening to a close. I look over at the hammock. The four girls are still immersed in their private, intimate world. Sage (who had raided the hammock earlier, along with some of the other boys, only to be turned away by the girls’ outrage and the adults’ disapproval) is now standing almost shyly beside it, gently rocking it back and forth, as though he, too, has been captured my the magic of the spell.
Still next to the fire, I am talking with Wes about his and Shara’s dilemma of where to move–back to Celo; or to Virginia Beach; or Arizona; or Copper Hill. They’ve been wrestling with their decision for a long time without finding any clarity.
Now their daughter, Rose, emerges from the hammock, runs over to her dad at just this point in our conversation, and says, “I want to spend the night at Claire’s tonight.”
Wes’ mouth drops open. Rose hardly even knew Claire before this evening, and Wes barely knows her parents. Doesn’t even know where they live.
“Are you sure?” he asks.
To make a long story short, Rose spent the night down the road with Claire; Wes had a powerful dream that night about someone needing to return to “the hills of Floyd County” in order to regain his powers; he and Shara are now actively searching for land in the neighborhood; and Wes is starting to work part-time for Terrell and Diane, who live across the road from Claire.
In some weird way, it feels as though those four girls spent a magical twilight hour of bonding in that hammock on Easter Sunday, and that the intangible feeling which gestated there became a catalyst that transformed Wes and Shara’s indecision into decisiveness.
The biblical phrase comes to mind: “A little child shall lead them.”
My Best Night Yet ( Sunday, 16 May 1993) We pick Lauren up at Claire’s late this afternoon. She has spent the night there.
“This was my best night yet,” she announces as we’re driving home. “I didn’t miss you and Mom at all, and I slept well the whole night.”
One more tiny but important step out of the shelter of the home and into the numinous world of friends and adventures and independence. A small going forth on her part; a bit of letting go on ours. Mutual stretching.
Making Friends ( Monday, 17 May 1993) “How do you make friends so easily,” I ask Lauren this evening while we’re getting ready to brush our teeth.
“What do you mean?”
“I was talking with Mary the other day. She told me about taking you to Blue Mountain School Thursday afternoon, to rendezvous for Onya’s birthday party. She said that when you walked into the third-grade room, and Onya saw you, she gave you this warm smile and said kind of shyly, ‘Hi, Lauren,’ like she was really happy to see you. Then Onya asked you to help her with her after-school chores, because she wanted to be with you.
“And when Joyce and I picked you up at the party,” I continue, “it’s like you and Onya are best friends. Now, you’ve only met her twice, right? First at Abbie’s mom’s wedding; and then for a couple of hours at the Barter Faire. Now you’re real close and seem to like each other a lot. So what I’m wondering is, how do you make friends so easily?”
Lauren gives me a big grin and kind of shakes her head. “I don’t know.”
“Ah, come on. You must have some idea about why it’s so easy for you or how you do it?”
Another grin and shake of the head.
“Well, it’s a wonderful gift,” I say. “I’m happy for you.”
Later in the day, I glance at Tom’s Reader’s Digest and see an article entitled something like, “How To Help Your Children Make Friends.” I smile and shake my own head and don’t even bother to look at it.
The Pot of Gold ( Wednesday, 19 May 1993) Another round of Lauren wondering about wishes. I’m in the garden, weeding the onions. She’s beside me on the path, more or less helping, but mostly engaging me in conversation.
“What would you do if you found a pot of gold?” she asks.
“Well,” I reply, using my standard stalling word, “I can’t really think of anything I’d want to buy with it. So maybe I’d find a Genie somewhere and see if he’d be interested in trading me something for the gold.”
“What would you want to trade it for?” she says, dropping any pretense of helping me weed.
“I’d say, ‘Genie, I can’t figure out how to do all the things I want to do in any particular day. So maybe you could help me by either giving me some extra hours each day, or by showing me how to use the hours I already have more wisely. And if you’d help me do that, Genie, I’d give you this pot of gold.'”
“Hmm,” Lauren says, pondering my wish. I get the feeling it’s kind of a stretch for her, as though the concerns of a forty-seven-year-old aren’t quite in sync with those of a nine-year-old.
Then I ask what wish she’d like from the Genie in exchange for the pot of gold, and the make-believe goes on, with me being the Genie and she being the little girl. The Genie tells her that she can only have one wish, and that she has to really want it, and really believe that the Genie can make it come true.
“And the Genie’s going to give you a special test,” I say, “that you have to pass before you make your wish. Any Genie who’s worth a brass lamp doesn’t just give out wishes without a test. Do you want the test?”
She nods, cautiously.
“O.K. The test is that this particular gardening Genie needs some more tools from the tool shed. So I’ll tell you what the tools are, and you go get them for me. But I’ll only tell you what the tools are once, and you have to bring me exactly what I ask for in order to pass the test. No wrong tools, no missing tools, no extra tools. Do you still want to take it?”
She considers this a moment.
Then, “Dad, let’s step outside the game a minute. If we do this, you’ll get your tools. Real tools. But my wish will only be a pretend wish. Right?”
“Nope. Real tools, real wish.”
She considers some more.
“O.K. What are the tools?”
I name off 6 or 8 tools, slowly, one at a time, but only once. She listens carefully and heads up toward the tool shed. I go back to my weeding, wondering what kind of wild wish this rash Genie will be presented with if Lauren succeeds in passing the test.
Now I happen to believe that wishes not only can be answered, but are being answered–all the time. It’s just that we haven’t yet learned to recognize everything we’re wishing for, or to understand why we would ever have wished for some of the crazy things we get.
But that’s kind of high-falootin’ mumbo-jumbo for some Genie to lay on a nine-year-old. So this particular Genie is doing strong praying as he weeds his onions and waits for the little girl to get back with the tools.
He doesn’t have to wait long. Soon Lauren returns with a cartful of hoes and rakes and shovels. The Genie inspects them carefully, one by one.
“All right, little girl,” he says, with just a trace of trepidation. “You pass the test. What one wish do you want from the Genie?”
“I wish,” says the little girl, “that you’d be able to go for more walks with me and do more things with me.”
Short and to the point.
And obviously directed not to the magical Genie, but to the busy Dad. The busy Dad who, just a moment ago, had been willing to trade his own pot of gold for a few more hours or a bit more wisdom each day.
“Done!” says the Dad. “Your wish is granted. At the beginning of each week, you can ask me to do one not-too-huge extra project with you, or go on one not-too-outlandish special hike, and I will make room for your wish in my oh-so-busy week.”
Then the little girl thanks the Genie and hugs the Dad and runs off to play elsewhere.
The Genie feels a bit relieved; the wish could have been a lot harder to handle. And the Dad goes back to weeding the onions. But what he’s really wondering is, “Now how can I come up with that pot of gold that the Genie’s going to want in exchange for those few extra hours?”