Being trained first in writing and then having transferred to being a therapist for a living, often comes as a surprise to people. When I tell people this, they often look at me as if I went from one polar opposite to another. The truth is, writers are taught to listen for detail. They’re taught to describe and not tell. Therapists are taught that the words that are being said are secondary to what’s occurring in the room. As a therapist, the words someone says to me, are just as important as where they sit in relation to myself and others, how they tell the story (is it just words that sound like a script or can I feel it? In family and couple’s therapy, the dynamics of what is happening in the room speak volumes. Does someone not speak? Does someone speak the whole time? When someone starts crying or becomes upset is a pause given to check in on that person or do they just keep going on with the narrative?
I remember in writing school, the professors emphasizing to ‘show and not tell.’ Growing up, my dad listened to a lot of Bruce Springsteen. I loved the Saturday mornings where I would wake up and I’d hear a Bruce Springsteen record and my dad would be humming. My dad worked a lot of jobs to provide for us when I was growing up. They were never ‘dream jobs,’ and they definitely did not make him rich. At times, he worked nights and days. In retrospect, this must have been incredibly hard on him physically. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also grown to appreciate how stressful it is to provide for others, to work extremely hard and still have to worry about unexpected bills, etc.
Still, those Saturday mornings when I would hear the record player playing Bruce Springsteen, I knew that my dad was ok. He was relaxed and finally able to leave his week behind and enjoy his free time.
In writing school when they would talk about ‘showing and not telling,’ I’d always think of a Bruce Springsteen song from his album Nebraska. On Nebraska, in the song “Used Car,”
Springsteen perfectly describes what it meant to be a lower middle class family in the United States. He does it brilliantly describing a family going to buy a ‘used car.’ In such a short song,
you feel like you know this whole family from just the narrator (the son of a father buying a ‘used car.’ With lines like, My ma she fingers her wedding band / watches the salesman stare at my old man’s hand. We know this is marriage affected by time and circumstance.
In each line he gives us a detail that is critical to knowing this family. The son who swears he’ll never buy a ‘used car,’ and who’s clearly embarrassed as the drive it home from the lot. The younger sister who gets to sit in the front seat next to her dad and doesn’t care as she’s ‘blowin’ the horn.’ The dad who ‘sweats the same job,’ day after day, with his wife in the backseat.
It exemplifies the ‘show don’t tell rule.’ As a writer/therapist, one of your biggest jobs is to hear the story. Sometimes people speak and the writer in me is just thinking, ‘this is poetry.’ The stories you hear as a therapist could fill a book of the landscape of ‘The American Dream & the Reality of the American Dream.”
One day I was working with someone and I asked her what she would do if she ever just had a moment away from her life. Her husband worked multiple jobs and they had a special needs child. Her answer was she would go to a gas station and buy a soda. She said she had a friend that worked there and she’d love to go there and just smoke a cigarette and have a soda with her friend. It broke my heart that if this woman could have some time off and do anything, this is what she would do. It also warmed my heart because it was so simple and yet in her situation, ‘impossible.’
After working with a lot of couples and watching my own marriage fall a part, I wrote this poem. It’s about how simple becomes so complex when life gets in the way, how easy it is to be the outsider and point this out. It’s also about how we forget sometimes how much the simple means when life gets really complex. I hope you like it.
Ice Cream Cones
he used to take Elanora
to the supermarket late at night.
They would spend two hours there
and always end up in the ice cream aisle.
When she removed her blouse,
he rubbed his chest against hers.
They were filled with wanting nights
with all the flavors new love affords.
Two kids sharing ice cream cones in the park
as the moon dropped and the morning sun rose.
Greg tells me now
“The only joy I get is
watching the sun rise as I drive
home from third shift at the factory.’’
The seconds tick as he gets
thirty minutes of seeing Elanora
before she is off to work.
I want to ask him, in that half hour,
if he ever thinks of dishing Elanora
an ice-cream cone? As he sobs,
I imagine soft ice cream collecting
ice chips and freezer burn,
buried underneath all the bills
and non-ice cream headaches life affords.
I imagine for a moment
at the bottom of the bowl of their marital bliss,
one day he sees she has some ice cream
on her lip, and he kisses her,
tasting their history before she’s off to work.
I imagine would could happen
If they they just held hands
and ate ice-cream cones for that one half hour.
all the challenges that go with having a special needs child
the poetry of their lives isn’t what they imagined.
the bank account that never expands.
They could do a double scoop,
try a new flavor each day.
They could become entangled in the simple
joy of sharing that one part of their lives again.
He is dressed as this complex sentence,
and I know how hard it would be to keep the syntax simple.
Her moist lips
The depth of her laugh.
Quiet times say nothing for a long time.
He is in my arms crying,
and I just hug him and remind him to breathe.
I validate how hard it is to be a man,
caught up in low paying jobs, thankless days,
and the disappointments of little rainfalls
that shower us unexpectedly.
Reminding him with a humored smile.
“Then again, without the rain,
the sun wouldn’t have such a taste
for shared ice-cream cones.”