Coming Up Roses: Bricks, Crocuses, Butterflies

When we went to hear football legend Jerry Rice speak about Black History Month a few years ago, what struck me perhaps the most was the immense size of his hands. Getting my picture taken with Number 80 was a thrill, and having his arm around me momentarily for my photo op reminded me of the old song, “He’s got the whole world in his hands!”  

I love that picture. I am no fan of football, and that is for sure. I have never watched even a fraction of a game in my life. But somehow, Jerry remains on my shortlist of iconic heroes, mostly for the fact that he got everywhere that he got, which was quite far, through perseverance and essentially out-efforting everyone else. That I identify with. 

Jerry grew up in the deep American south in a small town of 500 people. He was the sixth of eight children in a poor family, so I can imagine how much attention he got. I found out he had learning disabilities when he spoke about literacy to a crowd of Oakland middle school kids. As a very young child in a family where there was rarely enough food, Jerry helped his dad, a bricklayer. At age 5, he learned to catch bricks tossed by his brother and handed them to his dad one by one as the walls went up. That will give you some hands!

I had a client who thought recovery was supposed to be like building a brick wall. Once you lay the foundation, you place brick upon brick and build a whole new structure. She was frustrated, believing she had spent years trying to lay a foundation, and felt terrible failure, disappointment, loss, anger and shame that she had not put any building on it. She certainly felt let down by me! I was startled and rather jarred by her metaphor, which was so far from my own vision of recovery. 

My Oakland office is in a lovely quaint Victorian building. It was not built on the site where it now stands – rather, the old house with whatever its story was transported from some other part of town, deposited in this upwardly mobile neighborhood, and remodeled into a rather classy office building. I once saw a picture of a house being moved across a town. What a strange and disorienting sight, a large vehicle with a family-sized dwelling occupying the whole width of a city street. 

My vision of healing is far from a brick-and-mortar construction or a “fix,” but something much more organic. Just as neurofeedback is not something we do “to” someone or “on” someone, but a shared endeavor I do with someone, in a swaddle of caring, attentive psychotherapy. Similarly, I think of healing as something that arises, that emerges gradually from the inside out. It seems to me to be something that grows. How did Jerry’s hands get so big? There was some raw material, and then there was some long-term repeated action, and they emerged big and strong.

I think of healing as something that arises, that emerges gradually from the inside out. It seems to me to be something that grows.

Myself and the wonderful Jerry Rice


We lived in South Bend, Indiana, for two short and immensely long years, second and third grade. I have a few flashbulb memories of South Bend – I remember when the new sensation the Beatles burst on the scene with I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and we were all doing the “twist” to it. I remember the endless procession on TV when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and seeing little Jon-Jon saluting. And I remember the crocuses. Winters in South Bend seemed to be at least half the year (with the summers being blazing hot and always putting our mom in a bad mood.) The winter brought huge piles of snow. We could build a fort in the yard, which would freeze and last for months. But I have never liked snow or cold.

The first little sign that the winter might end was the crocuses. The little, bright green sprouts began gingerly to poke up through the snow. There was still plenty of snow, but those fiercely determined little fighters not only pierced the chill, but bloomed, splashing the bright white with kisses of color and hope. They seem to say ahhh… relief is coming. Maybe not right away, but it will. Little sprigs of hope.

I think of healing that way. Not as something we can figure out, manipulate or construct externally, but nourish and care for, providing the necessary inputs for nature to work its magic, often outside our view. And we must be mindful and attentive to the often subtle seedlings of evidence that something is, in fact, happening, always more slowly than we would wish.

Perhaps that is one reason why I like cheese making and sourdough baking so much. With pure ingredients, thoughtful and consistent attention, the requisite inputs on their optimal schedule, and patience with the glacial passage of time, and voila – a transformation into something new, delicious, healthful, and joyous. It seems I can make so many people happy with it!

The hardest cheesemaking lesson for me to learn was the patience part. I could not believe I had to wait two, three, and four months, often managing mold and sometimes stink. After some years of experience, I rather love the stinkers, and I age some of my cheeses two years and more. How did this happen? I guess my whole life, I have been learning about organicity. And that loving attention is the essential ingredient for everything. Of course, the other unbearably essential ingredient is time…

Brick structures are not my model of recovery. It is rather an organic unfolding. Like sourdough bread and the vast myriad of cheeses, often it looks like nothing is happening at all.

Monarch Butterflies

In this crazy world, monarch butterflies are an endangered species. What a tragedy. I am proud to say that our sister and brother-in-law have a little monarch butterfly rescue operation going on in their backyard. They nurture the caterpillars, protect the chrysalises, and tend to the babies until they are ready to fly. I have never seen a baby butterfly. 

Taking care of caterpillars has never occurred to me. I admit to being a rather squeamish non-fan of insects of any ilk. In particular, I associate caterpillars with a horrible memory, barely more than a flashbulb. I was probably about three at the most. We were at a little park in New York. All I remember was that the ground was covered, carpeted in a squirming mass of solid green caterpillars. Yecchhh. It was terrifying. Wearing little pink buckle Mary-Janes, there was nowhere to put a little foot without crushing and killing them. There was no way to make a step. They were everywhere. I was panicked and terrified. I remember screaming and screaming, “Daddy, carry me!” That is all I remember. But ever since, I have had a particular aversion to caterpillars in spite of their unmistakable association with butterflies, which I love.

Fast forward. About a week ago, our brother-in-law proudly whipped out his phone to show off pictures of the little pet monarch caterpillars they are tending. I was amazed at how lovely they were, especially since my only real association, at least visually, was so horrible. Striped with color, they did actually betray a bit of the wonder ahead, the monarch, the royal pinnacle of butterflies. Wow! Who would have thunk it?

Bricks are great, square and solid. I love my house, and it keeps me safe. It held steady through two big San Francisco shakers: ’06 and ’89, and it is still going strong. I admit that hunkering down during the pandemic in this safe haven was quite pleasant. 

However, brick structures are not my model of recovery. It is rather an organic unfolding. Like sourdough bread and the vast myriad of cheeses, often it looks like nothing is happening at all. But last week, when I cracked a 16-month-old cheddar, it was that same feeling of wow! How did this happen? I am so glad I waited. The delicious depth and complexity were worth it and made me forget about the slow slog of time. 

To me, recovery is a lot like that. If we stay the course, eventually, it does come up roses. Looking back, we are seeing with different eyes. What was so hideous and deplorable and seemed to expand endlessly to eternity looks different, and might even faintly betray a whiff of the beauty which lay ahead. It may be slow, but certainly not as I, for one, imagined it would ultimately turn out. Save the monarchs!

A lovely monarch butterfly caterpillar!

Today’s song:

My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.

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