Friday, August 8, 2008

Irene's Idea of Identity, or How to Integrate the Internal and External

Irene sits in the chair, her psychiatrist sits behind the desk. Irene had a psychotic break a decade ago, and has been on medication ever since. Her psychiatrist has been the father she never had, so seeing him every two weeks is a lifesaver.

"I'm painting," she tells him, "but I've come to that place where I shut down, and things go wrong."

He nods his head. Irene watches him carefully, waiting for him to offer up pearls of wisdom. Instead he begins to cough.

 "I hope you're taking good care of yourself," she says.  

He pulls out a bottle of water and a clean little Dixie cup. "I'm fine, really," he says. "Would you like some water?"

Irene shakes her head. "Chocolate would be good about now. Maybe a Hershey's Kiss."

"You're anxious and getting a little depressed," he says.

 "My cousin, Becky, goes to work everyday and no matter what else is going on, she gets her work done," Irene says. "My friend, Annie, makes applesauce whenever she is having a bad day, sometimes a few days in a row, then she's back on the saddle."  

"How are you sleeping?" the psychiatrist asks. 

"I had a Cheshire Cat bizarre dream," Irene answers. "Colors and nice people and bubbles, like at a party, then it popped and was gone."

"We've talked before about how you struggle with setting boundaries within a creative context," he remarks as he scribbles on his note pad.

"I nearly lost it the day I had to take my cat, Chris, to the vet," Irene says. "In the end, it was easy."

"I have a dog whose given me a few scares. How are things at home?" he asks. 

"The Thai friend who cuts my husband's hair came over last week," Irene says. "She told the story of Solomon and made it sound better than Star Wars. Says Jesus makes her a good life. Gilda, who lives next door, I've told you about her before, still screams at her kids so much that I keep the windows on that side of the house closed."

"Do you feel that way?" he asks.

"No. Not like her. I think she screams to get attention and cries when she doesn't. Kind of her own worst enemy."

"I think you're doing a lot to help yourself. Going to yoga, spending time with friends, painting with serious intent. The painting is important. You need that creative outlet. Could you look at your work from a different perspective?" He's leaning back in his chair peering at her above his glasses.

"Well, this woman, Henrietta, from my yoga class, said her debit card was counterfeited and it upset her so much that she changed her name to Etta and listens to jazz," Irene mumbles.

"Etta James, I guess," he says. "I listen to her in my car and let my mind wonder. I find it very relaxing."

"Stay with my painting, right? Irene asks. "Enjoy the process, right?"

He nods. "Takes a different tilt at times, when you're a creative person."

"I think I understand. Thank you," Irene says.

"See you in two weeks," he says as he walks Irene to the door. "You're doing fine. I look forward to seeing this painting."

"Me too, me too." Irene says, turning away as the door closes. Fifty-five exquisitely sensitive minutes twice a month.  

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Henrietta's Headstand

Mr. Cash sent Henrietta and her little brother to live in an orphanage after his wife died. Henrietta's brother went into the military at 18, she became a novice at a nearby convent. But after the end of the first year, it was agreed that she would leave, so she became a housekeeper for a family in Pasadena, California. Over the next several years, she put herself through night school and obtained a degree in mathematics. She never married. 

"Life is lived by virtue of the dollar," Henrietta Cash taught her students at the local high school. "It's all about the math. Easy enough if you keep track. House of cards if you don't ."

Every time she said this, she heard her father's baritone voice counseling her. 

"Henrietta," he'd say, "debtors are the poor unfortunate of the earth. Don't owe anyone anything and you will lead a good Christian life."

He'd kept his accounts within a $.50 error margin. One of his ledger's, yellowed and brittle now, perched upright, half open, on her bedside table. The fastidiously organized austere columns entered in an exacting  hand with neither a smear nor blot reassured her that an orderly life has meaning. 

"If I can't pay for it on the spot," she has said a hundred times if she has said it once, "then I won't buy it." 

Henrietta has lived by the numbers for 60 plus years now. She know that if something costs $9.99 it really costs $10.82 when Los Angeles County tax of 8.25 percent is included. Some time back, the bank sent her a debit card. She stuck it in a drawer.

Semi-retired, Henrietta runs statistical data for a research lab from her computer at home from 4 AM until 10 AM, five days a week, earning a tidy sum of money, which she does not disclose to anyone. Until 10 years ago, her hobby was knitting, but the doctor convinced Henrietta to take up yoga after she gained 50 pounds and her joints ached. She lost weight and her bones stopped aching.

"It's the best thing I've ever done," she says. "At my age, I can do a headstand?" Her father would not have approved.

Then one day she came home from a yoga class and there were four phone messages for her. The first one was from the fraud department of her bank. The second, third and fourth were as well, each leaving the same message with the same number for her to call. 

Still in her yoga clothes  she returned the call but hung up as soon as the computer voice asked for the last four digits of her social security number. 

Finally, Henrietta decided that four messages meant it was serious business. She wound her way through the menus until a live person answered on the other end of the line.

"Why are you calling me?" she asked the female voice. 

"There is a charge for $705.00 on your debit card for gasoline at a station in Bakersfield," the female voice said, monotone and robot-like, although it was a real woman. "Did you make that purchase?"

"NO," Henrietta answered, her voice so high-pitched it hurt her throat, "No, I did not." 

"Did you make a purchase for $792.38 at the same station a few minutes later?" the female voice asked, again monotone and robot-like. 

"Why would I do that?" Henrietta shreiked,  her rib cage clamped so tightly around her chest that she had to remind herself to breath."

"Ma-am," the female voice said, "I realize this is upsetting, but we need to ask. Did you make this purchase?"

"I spend $45.00 on gasoline when the tank is empty, or $34.00 when I have half a quarter of a tank left. I can't imagine $700.00 worth of gasoline?" Henrietta said. She sank back against the wall. "Did the charges go through? Exactly how much money do I owe?" Henrietta practiced breathing in for four counts, holding her breath for four counts and breathing out for four counts.

"I don't know," the female voice said. "The charges will not show up on your account if they were declined. I'm sorry I cannot tell you more right now."

Henrietta stopped counting. Her voice and the female voice continued speaking to each other briefly while a single thought reverberated through her mind. At least $700 is a round even amount.

She sat down at the computer to check her accounts and noticed the bamboo stalks on the screen saver. They were very pretty, fresh, crisp, green, jumbled together one over the other. She did not count them. Her heart thumped in her chest but she did not count the beats. 

She lined up the pencils by length, the pens by brand, the paper clips by color, and two quarters along the edge of the smooth glossy walnut finished wood desk. She fanned out the legal pads like a deck of cards. She piled the pads of post-it notes one on top of the other, in even piles on each side of the fan of legal pads. 

Henrietta admired the symmetry of it all then reached out with both hands as though about to play the piano and suddenly mushed them around, the legal pads falling off the desk, the paper clips sliding beneath the edge of the computer keyboard. Pencils, pens, quarters this way and that.    

Next, Henrietta leaned down and opened the lower left file drawer and removed each hanging folder one by one placing them in stacks near her feet. By the time they had all been removed the files themselves and the papers inside had fallen askew. When the air-conditioner came on, receipts and old post-its that had long since lost their stickiness blew like feathers landing wherever they fell. She opened the top file drawer and pulled the files out in handfuls, tossing them this way and that, their papers flying in every direction. She emptied everything.  

Within the hour, the room appeared to have been ransacked. Henrietta sat down in the middle of the room, smoothing a seat among her stuff, lifting her butt-cheeks side to side until she felt balanced. Her legs crossed in lotus position, she closed her eyes, lifted her arms above her head, brought her hands together in prayer position and lowered them to the crown of her head. She visualized a bamboo stalk in her mind's eye, and allowed her breathing to even out. 

Then Henrietta lowered her hands to her third eye right between her eyebrows, and relaxed her face and jaw, then she lowered her hands to her throat and blew a soft long breath over her fingertips. Finally, she brought her hands to her heart and bowed her head. 

She prayed: I am a strong, secure, successful woman. I will put my office into a new order. I want a playful perspective on life and to align my internal needs with my external life. A little voice, said, this is a work-in-progress.

Henrietta sat up taller lifting the sides of her chest longer and lighter. She took a deep breath and lifted her head and opened her eyes. The darkness of the room broken only by moonlight. Pushing the stuff of her life aside, she placed her head on the rug, her hands behind her neck, her arms on the floor supporting her head and slowly lifted her legs above her head. 

Observing the mess from a new perspective, it crossed Henrietta's mind that a credit card might be very useful. It could cut down on paper. She could call herself Heni on the card... there really wasn't anyone to object. 

Well, maybe she'd be Heni. Henrietta would have to think about that tomorrow.

What do you think?