On the second floor of SFMoMA within Open Ended: Painting and Sculpture, 1900 to Now, lives a Jackson Pollock painting titled, Guardians of the Secret. Completed in 1943, Guardians was part of Pollock's first solo exhibition. Much has been written about this work, mostly pointing out its Native American influence and Jungian archetype themes. Pollock is said to have brought his Jungian analyst to the show opening, which of course makes Pollock even that much more intriguing to me.
Upon completion of graduate school, I gifted my mentor a small framed postcard of the painting. To me, the images evoke a tale of the therapeutic relationship. The analytic couch appearing in the center, the male and female representations of the patient at either end. The analyst as the dog bearing witness at the side of the couch. The images and brushstrokes across the canvas representing Ogden's Intersubjective Analytic Third and the reverie left to the analyst to guard, gather, and present to the patient.
Long before I became a psychotherapist and long before I knew this painting, I have been a guardian of secrets. When I was young, it would startle me, mostly because I didn't understand it. And at one point in my life I grew to resent it. I didn't want to know things. But no matter how much I closed myself off energetically, something in the ether was still saying, tell me everything.
It wasn't until I was in training for my license that I began to understand this strange role. Working with kids makes many things clear. They are lightening, striking with intensity and rarely softened by the ground. They speak with little filter and trust their intuition a lot more than we do. Or perhaps they have not yet been taught to unlearn all that they know they feel.
I suddenly found myself in the role of being the person kids would talk to. Whether it was a single incident, or a string of acts that landed a child in the principal's office, made them break down in class, or miss school for an extended time, it became known that if there was a story to tell, they would tell it to me.
In retrospect I imagine this trust had a lot to do with my adherence to the facts of the situation. The child is in control. If they have information they want to share, they will share it. If they don't very few things will convince them until they are ready, if at all. And that is their power. That's really all the power they have. And it deserves to be acknowledged. Those rules made my role rather simple. Just sit down. Say hello. And wait.
A lot of the time I would draw. Doodle in silence. This might last an hour or so. Other times there was talking. Sometimes about art, music, cars. Just stuff. And sometimes the themes had a deep analytic message that I could gather and guard and present back to the child. Many times it was simply withstanding their anger. Silence. Disinterest. Not being scared by it and not saying a word. It was almost like the less I did the better. Just sit and share the space.
It's been a while since I have guarded secrets other than for my own child. The pandemic has kept me from visiting many places where I would go and just sit as an available guard. A museum, a park bench, in line to grab coffee. I wondered if my time as a guardian had passed. And this felt okay.
But then I decided to learn to skateboard. And that changed everything.
Last week as I progressed through the ten minute ritual of pads and helmet, I was approached by two young men. My daughter was with me, as we watched them skate on a board that we had never seen before. It was somewhere between a long board and a skateboard. The trucks were backwards. The wheels appeared softer and the two skaters seemed to cut through the concrete like water. As they skated by they stopped to show us the board. We talked for a few minutes about how it was different, why they liked it and how long we had all been skating. After a few minutes my daughter politely waved and skated away to begin her daily dance with the concrete.
As I pulled on my last knee pad, one of the men approached me with the board in his hands. “Give it a try, he said.” I laughed. I can barely stay on a board I've been miserably trying to stay on for the past month. I passed on the offer and started on my humble route from one end of a small wall to the other, hugging the side closely for when I lose my balance. I watched the men skate away taking flight over hard edges and soft curves of the park. Their hair catching wind and the unmistakeable sound of wheels hitting concrete after they kissed the space above the ground. I sat, watching them move to meet the concrete, with my daughter in the background flying by behind them. They are in it. I thought.
The men joined me for a break and before I knew it I sat guardian. I learned that they were leaving for college next week. That it had been a really hard year. And that they were scared. I learned one young man was accepted at a notable east coast college but opted to stay in California instead. Neither one wanted to be far away from home. I learned that they both wanted different things out of life. One wanted to be a firefighter. The other only knew that he wanted to work for himself. I learned that college acceptances were slim this year and that despite their awarded private school education, like themselves, many of their peers were headed to community college for two years before taking up at a 4 year state university. I learned the one young man who grew up in Florida never wanted to go back. That they both hated camp as young kids, really wanted to help people, and preferred to be barefoot. They had been arriving at the skatepark every day at 7am, to watch the early morning sun peek through the light fog and cover the surrounding farmland. They liked the skatepark empty and quiet and cherished the time they spent together feeling like they could fly.
I said very little. Listened. Guarded, gathered. They wanted to know it would all be okay. That they made good choices. That they would make friends, fall in love, and go on to be needed in this life. They wanted to matter. They saw me on the other side of the precipice. With the job and the kid. The car and the home. With what they thought was the answer. What does it feel like to get there, they wanted to know.
When do we know the answer?
My daughter came flying by ready for a water break. “Can we leave,” she asked? Over an hour had passed since we arrived. An agreement was reached that it was time for us all to leave. A noisy gathering of boards, backpacks, and water bottles commenced. Together, we all walked the winding route back to the cars and began the post ride ritual of removing pads and finding places for multiple boards to sit and not be tossed around by the drive home.
“When you feel more confident you should get one of these boards,” the one young man said, climbing into his car. “Thanks,” I said, “I will.” “It was really nice talking to you,” he said.
I smiled, loaded my last pad into the trunk and glanced at the back of my daughter's head over the backseat. “Good luck y'all. Whatever it is you do, it's going to be great. You'll know what to do when you get there.” I waved, closed the trunk, made my way to the driver's seat and began the next winding route home.
It's the same precipice over and over again.
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