Assisted Living: Teachers, Learning to Whisper, Recovery

It is always my intention to be reliable and consistent, so please receive my sincerest apology and regret for being late with this week’s blog.

I think we should all have a course in psychology school about orchids, as orchids are some excellent teachers – admittedly better perhaps than many I had in grad school and (probably “easier on the eyes”, at least while in bloom). I have always loved these grand, often exotic, gorgeous flowers, and would sometimes receive or even buy them for myself, always bursting with color and aliveness when I got them. Most of them tend to bloom extravagantly for a month or even several, bringing great joy and pleasure. I have kept them everywhere: in the office, in the house, wherever I could. When their time had passed, the spectacular flowers would gently fade, wither, and ultimately, softly drop off, but rarely without a good long run of exhibitionism first. My trusted housekeeper of several decades, who cleaned both the house and the office, blessedly was an orchid whisperer, and fastidiously cared for them for me. She even had names for each one. When each finished their show, she would whisk them away to the orchid extended care facility: her home.

When not blooming, orchid plants are not much to look at, if not downright unsightly. At the very least they are most often not particularly ornamental house plants, at least for my taste. Left to my own devices i.e. ignorance, I probably would have had little hope/patience for them and thrown them out. But my whisperer would miraculously, with whatever mysterious modality, restore them to a new aliveness and brilliance, often more beautiful than ever. Granted, sometimes a re-potting was needed, she lovingly did that too. She would return them sometime later, unrecognizable, seemingly re-born.

After over thirty years of a lovely symbiosis of work and friendship, my trusted housekeeper/whisperer retired. Her retirement was a blow. Although certainly well-earned and timely, nonetheless I was heartbroken. Like many a survivor of neglect for whom loss/abandonment is the primal wound and a dramatic trauma “trigger,” (I do hate that word). I wondered if I’d ever get over it. Meanwhile, I had a little cemetery of unsightly lifeless, dissociated orchid ghosts, the barren shadows of whom they had been before. Without her, I felt inclined to toss them, “what would be the point?” I could hear the echoes of the old neglect refrain “I don’t know what to do…” But another voice piped up, I could somehow faintly hear the familiar voice of Tom Petty: “Learning to fly…”

Learning to Whisper

Like trauma healing, we may have had what might seem, at least in the rearview, a run of success, fun, even seeming pleasure, or not. When the trauma, whether it be incident or shock trauma; attachment/neglect trauma, or some undifferentiated combination which it usually is when it finally manifests in some un-ignorable pain, paralysis, some form of agony, we may find ourselves a shadow, or worse, of what we once were or hoped to be. Without hope, color, or life force, like the spiky stick of the barren orchid stalk… barely a skeleton remaining, and gnarly roots. Thinking of abandoned children, and lonely dissociated adults, I was suddenly inspired to do what I could to assist them in restoring themselves. So, I began to educate myself and train myself to help them, not without trusted consultation of course.

I discovered that my little upstairs bathroom, mine, but also the bathroom I share with my clients whom I now see in my home office, is an ideal healing environment. Not the steam from my showers as I would have imagined, although I am sure that doesn’t hurt, but the perfect and copious light. Western exposure, a window that blessedly looks out on a cityscape, and the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. What could better facilitate rejuvenation than that?

To my delight, they began to perk up. What had seemed long dead or at least comatose, first sprouted little spikes that would from one day to the next reach an inch or two, even more, longer, toward the window, and then it seemed suddenly,  to sprout little buds, and then amazingly blooms- the spectacular blooms that I had always thought were only for other people. I couldn’t do/have that. I discovered that I could! My little bathroom became Bride of the Hilo Botanical Garden, a special place that I love so much! And a parable of healing work.

The room next door to the bathroom, with similar abundant western light, became the annex. Of course, I started accumulating plants again. And as can happen when we hit success, my reputation spread. My best friend had a little graveyard of collected struggling, near-death plants that she did not quite have the heart to toss, but almost. She asked if she could bring them.

I said, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free…” That is the inscription on the US Statue of Liberty. I remember hearing them again and again, as my parents both recalled it was the first thing they saw when they arrived in this country, ragged, wide-eyed, traumatized refugee/immigrants certainly both fitting the description. I retch thinking of what the welcome to what was once thought of as a “melting pot” has become. Well, my friend brought a huge drawer-like box of ragged plants. Admittedly I had not known what I was in for when I made the offer. I renamed the “annex” Assisted Living.


So, what does all this have to do with us? Well, my task with all these bedraggled foster children was to shepherd them to healing, rather like what I do all day. I remember when we were accompanied up a sacred mountain with our guide, the Native Hawaiian Kimo, who is engaged in the care, and endless re-planting of the sacred mountain Haleakalā. He told us that initially he thought that when he placed the little seedlings in the soil, they would fare better if they had plenty of personal space around each little plant. He soon discovered, that the plans standing alone, grew much more slowly and with less vigor than the ones that clustered together in social groups. Much as Judith Herman taught us in my first significant trauma book, the timeless Trauma and Recovery, (Basic Books, 1992).

The most healing element in trauma recovery is being in a community, in relationship: precisely what is most absent in the neglect experience. So, loving attention is the most curative of factors for my traumatized and most certainly neglect trauma clients. Of course. And although it is utterly necessary, but most definitely. What is also required is the reliable presence, of the fountain of sustenance and care: skill, time, consistency, and the needed supplies to thrive ultimately. And the company of the group!

Part of the joy of orchid care, is the regular visit to the plants, scouting for new growth. As with trauma healing, often the signs of progress are subtle, or imperceptible, at least to the survivor themselves. And often the wise therapist is better off not pointing it out, because it may sound so utterly off the mark to the suffering client. I have made that mistake far too often! People feel minimized, unseen, or simply annoyed. But I needn’t keep my mouth shut with the orchids. And admittedly they take for f—ing ever, to turn the corner. I know one plant that when I got it long ago, looked like a bee swarm of wild yellow blooms. They did in fact look like a cloud of spectacular and bright flying insects. For what seems like forever I have been daily watching what look to be preliminary buds getting a tiny bit fatter, a tiny bit longer, a tiny bit yellower, a bit taking their sweet time to really take flight again. So much like trauma healing.

I have followed my own best advice and found good counsel, on YouTube, the people in the plant stores, and the flower department of the grocery store. I even learned that watering them with ice cubes is the way to go, it is cooling and gradual, and it gives me time to visit with each one and see how they are coming along. Like shepherding my clients and myself So endlessly slow. But wow eventually we look and something is very different and beautiful. Each month when I see my dear friend, I pick out one of hers, that I have been fostering, and she is amazed at the change. It is my way of saying, “Hang in.”

I remember when I was a little girl and books were my best refuge. I loved the book, Stuart Little, a story about a mouse. I don’t remember the story, except that I loved it. I remember being frustrated and disappointed at the end. Partly because I did not want it to end, but partly because I never found out what happened. It ended with “…somehow Stuart knew he was going in the right direction…” In Memorium: On the day of this writing, another loss. Local treasure baseball legend, Willie Mays passed away at the age of 93. Willie was famous for being perhaps the best baseball player of all time, as well as being a genuinely good guy who loved the sport and through both exquisite athleticism and sportsmanship made it better for everyone. Although I am no sports fan and have never watched Major League Baseball or any other pro game, as you know by now, I have a fascination for the individuals who play. And Willie was another who quietly but doggedly worked to overcome the color bar in the US. After a lifetime of knocking it out of the park, it is his turn to sail off into the sky but not disappear. One last time, “Say hey Willie!” and thanks.

Today’s song:

“Sociostasis”: Words, Husbands, Attachment

I do love words. I asked my husband, does everyone read books with a massive dictionary at their elbow like I do? I am fairly literate, but I don’t want an interesting new one to get by me.  He usually knows them all, so he doesn’t need to, but he

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