My daughter Emily has never been much of a hiker. Bright and beautiful, and possessing a quick wit and an exceptionally kind heart, Emily has many talents and interests. Walking in the woods until you sweat is just not one of them.
Nevertheless, she will sometimes accompany the rest of the family if we’re determined to get in a hike on one of our yearly trips to the Rocky Mountains. She’s a social girl, after all, and doesn’t want to be left behind. And she is a remarkably good egg.
Part way through one such hike last summer, Emily happened to turn her ankle painfully on one of the many roots and rocks on the path. And seeing as she was pretty tired and out of her element to begin with, she kind of fell apart emotionally as she limped pitifully down the rest of the trail.
Thankfully, Emily’s younger brother, Sam (who might on a different occasion have been the one to trigger her tears) came to the rescue. He walked along beside her, talking, cheering her up. And before I knew it, they were both moving toward the side of the path and doing something that looked very much like blowing snot out of their noses.
Turned out they were actually blowing snot out of their noses. Sam had taken the opportunity to teach Emily how to blow that most sacred of teenage creations – snot rockets, and they were both putting in good practice time on the task as they walked along. And laughing hysterically as they did so, like the young teenagers they no longer really were, but still held so tightly in their hearts.
You had to hand it to Sam. It was the perfect teaching moment. First of all, Em had been crying for a while and had a lot of snot to work with, so the rockets were spectacular. But even more impressive, my wise boy had found a way to help his sister make something fun and social out of an experience that, at first glance, seemed just an embarrassing and painful mess.
There are many items in my therapy office to which I look for inspiration as I work with and for my clients:
- Surf-smoothed stones from a favorite Maine beach remind me the power of time to smooth out the rough edges of a life marked by trauma and loss.
- A triptych painting of the stages of a dandelion’s life alludes to the natural cycle of newness, growth and loss that permeates so many aspects of our human experience.
- A metal sculpture of a creeping snail nudges me to slow down and follow my client’s pace.
- A glass paperweight embedded with an etching of a horse, a gift from a past student with whom I thought I had little in common, affirms to me that we can all connect around something.
All of these objects hold meaning for me, but the one I find myself turning to most frequently is a training handout, now framed, that came to me when I was a baby therapist. At the top of the handout is a pen and ink drawing of a tall sailing ship moving through the rolling surf, sails unfurled. Underneath the ship, written in simple but elegant calligraphy, is the following quote:
“There are parts of a ship which taken by themselves would sink. The engine would sink. The propeller would sink. But when the parts of a ship are built together, they float. So with the events of my life. Some have been tragic. Some have been happy. But when they are built together, they form a craft that floats and is going places. And I am comforted.” (There was no name after the quote on my handout, but I have since found an attribution to Ralph W. Sockman.)
I refer to this quote at some point in my work with nearly all of my clients, because almost every client with whom I work is struggling to make sense of a messy, broken past that feels exceedingly heavy to them, like a large boulder they carry around in a back pack. Or like the engine of sailing ship that is so heavy it can’t float.
I believe most of us, in fact, are working to make sense of a past that includes this broken messiness. I know I am. So I refer to “the boat quote” (as one of my clients named it) for my own growth as much as for my clients’, to remind myself that the dirty, messy parts of our lives, the parts we don’t reveal to others if we can possibly avoid it, are every bit as meaningful, formative and transformative – perhaps more so – than the pretty, shiny, organized parts we take out for guests.
Like Br. Curtis Almquist so wisely reminds us: “Your past, whatever it is, will provide the firm foundation for your life. Even if there’s rubble, the rubble will be reformed into an edifice far stronger and more beautiful than you could have ever imagined.”
Yes. And, if you’re lucky, and you have a brother named Sam, sometimes the strong, beautiful edifice that arises out of the messy rubble will also be hysterically funny.
What about you? Is there a messy part of your life that has transformed you? Tell us about it in a comment below.