Patricia Canright Smith writes fiction, memoir, and personal essays. Her linked stories feature human/animal intersections—condors, spiders, pythons, wallabies, rats, a feral cat, gnats—and consider the solace of the natural world. Or not. The essays explore problems, psychotherapy, nature, religion, and death. She also creates visual art in various mediums and sometimes images find their way into the narratives. Until recently, she practiced psychotherapy. Her work has appeared anthologies and journals including Short Story America (third prize), Jabberwock Review, and Catamaran Literary Reader, with new stories upcoming in Fourteen Hills and North Dakota Quarterly. www.patriciacanrightsmith.com
Me & The Toad
Question: If you accept that you have 83 problems and will always have 83 problems, how do you keep from giving up?
I arrived at my brother David’s fiftieth birthday party wearing the Shoulder Toad. You know, Mr. Negatory, that fetid little ear-hisser whose running commentary can suck the sweetness out of honey. Carrying Toad was getting old; I’d been in this funk for a while and I had no idea why. Still, I was happy to be at a beach party and happy to be in California, in the way only a Los Angeles refugee who has spent forty sodden years in Seattle is happy, almost unbearably happy, in that envious way, to be in California.
I skidded down rooty cliffs onto the seed-gravel sands of Monastery Beach, a mile-long shore across from the old Carmelite Monastery that skirts the picture-postcard southern cove of Carmel Bay. I had impulsively decided that this party would be the perfect opportunity for me to start on an art project I’d been thinking about. Why not? Away from home, I could be whoever I wanted, meaning I could be nobody, meaning I didn’t have to be the Therapist. I take it on faith that not all therapists feel this way, but it seemed obvious to me that everyone – family, friends, other therapists, the mail carrier – expected me to be – not behave, be – a certain way: healthy. As in: Is it healthy to get involved with that younger guy so soon after your divorce? (I hope so. I married him.) As you can imagine, this was a burden. Therapists can be as neurotic as the next guy.
Here is the Buddhist parable that had me fired up to do an art project:
A desperate farmer travels across Asia seeking the Healer. “Oh Buddha!” the farmer cries, “the drought stretches seven years, locusts swarm the fields, my wife – horribly stout, huge! – yet her cooking would stymie a starving man, and my six children lie, steal, and gamble. Rats pilfer my duck eggs, termites devour my house, thieves and mendicants swarm my village. . . .” Finally he winds down and waits for the words that will put things right.
The Buddha says, “I cannot help you.”
The farmer’s eyes pop – all this way he came!
The Buddha says, “Everyone has 83 problems. If you solve one, another will surely take its place. And some problems, like death, have no solution.” As the farmer starts to splutter the Buddha leans forward and spreads his hands. “It may be I can assist with the 84th problem.”
The farmer stops. He looks up.
“Your desire to not have problems.”
Assignment: Take a one-hour vacation. Pack only three problems.
To start, I figured I would need problems, so I carried a tiny spiral notebook and a pen. You would think procuring problems would be easy for a therapist. If psychotherapy is a barrel, wouldn’t problems be the fish? But I had a rule: no client problems. Client problems belonged in the office. Which meant I needed outside problems. Which meant I would have to collect, like the Anthropologist of my fantasy: observe, ask friendly questions, write stuff down. In the brand-new tiny spiral notebook.
And no solving.
I surveyed possible subjects: tanned, fit natives running like race-horses after Frisbees. I was squeamish about asking a stranger what his problem is. I don’t like to talk to strangers. I don’t like to intrude. Theoretically, this could render my job undoable, but not at all. My office provided the platform, my chair, the persona; I could ask anything. But a party is different. If a therapist at a party asks a person, oh, how they like their new watch, for example, the person will back away and say “Don’t psychoanalyze me!” Seriously.
I reminded myself that these people did not know me.
Finally I spied someone I recognized, Mickey, a wiry truck driver with golden retro curls whom I knew from when he lived in Venice Beach with David – two pot-smoking hippie musicians. I set my shoulders, sauntered across the sand, and sank down beside him on a driftwood log. We nodded through hellos, long times, so what are you up to nows. Then we sat and nodded at the sand, the sea, the sky. Gulls shrieked. Harbor seals surfed the breakers.
Finally, I braved the question. “So, if you had to say what your problem is – you know, just name some problem – what would it be?”
“I’m just collecting, you know, problems. For this art project I’m doing?” The effort to sound casual was distorting my voice, as though a tiny bot in my larynx was trying – and failing – to polish it up. I cleared my throat.
Mickey took a swig of Moosedrool Ale. He nabbed a twist of manzanita. Together we surveyed the fat amber glisten of bull kelp, rising and falling as if the bay were breathing. Mickey hurled the manzanita into a breaker. Another swig of Moosedrool.
“The problem doesn’t have to be deep or personal or anything,” I said. Mickey chuckled again and I burrowed my toes into the cold wet. Now I could see what a bad idea this was but I was stumped right along with Mickey – what to say to let him off the hook?
Road rage? My eyes slid sideways to see if Mickey meant himself, and like a machine my brain generated Mickey-to-Road Rage links – expression, gesture, musculature, haircut, body art. You might wonder: did I have my usual urge to probe, to try to help? Well, maybe, but that switch was off. I simply closed my mouth, wrote down road rage, closed my notebook, smiled at Mickey, and returned my gaze to the heaving Pacific.
Number one: Road rage.
Question: How can the Dalai Lama giggle when asked about China?
That Buddhist parable, stumbled across six months earlier, had inspired more than art. You know how most things transform in an incremental way, following a traditional pattern – egg to nymph to dragonfly? Not this time. When I happened upon the parable it was a conversion experience. You toil in the garden, nose to the ground, trying to eliminate every rock, bug, weed, day after day, rocks, bugs, weeds, and then one day something makes you stop. You don’t bend down, you raise your head. It has rained, and now the sun is shining, and everywhere – among the rocks, adorned with bugs, alongside weeds – you see parsley, lettuce, chard, chives.
See? Where once I saw problem, I now saw life. But what did it mean? How could I use this dazzling realization?
I started with sharing: friends, family, choir practice, dinner parties.
I told my clients: Imagine believing that we all have 83 problems, every last one of us, even Bill Gates, even Oprah. Then imagine rising up out of your bed of problems and getting to work. Not on your problems. On something else.
Maybe it confused them. It might have been a letdown, a breach of faith – to contemplate acceptance in the face of one’s problems. Or maybe it helped. One woman, catching herself in a litany of complaint, lifted her hands and lilted, “Oh, well, it’s the way of the world!”
At the beach, I set a chipped enamel pot of marinating chicken on the card table near the grill and headed back up the cliff. I worried about raw chicken in the sun, but there did not seem to be coolers, so I ferried supplies, set out cutlery, and speared skewers through possibly spoiled meat, mushrooms, onions, peppers and cherry tomatoes. Beer and wine were passed around, some pot along the fringe. As the pyramids of shish kebabs grew, I egged myself on: You are The Collector. Just ask anyone. I cracked a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
David’s wife, Anne, a trim, fit woman in khaki shorts and a white tee shirt, whom I esteem greatly – rock climber, writer, photographer, world traveler, book editor, and inspiring reader and thinker – joined me with her platter of glistening shish-kebabs.
She pointed at my little notebook.
“I am collecting,” I said. I explained the 83 Problems project.
“Ah.” She laid shish kebabs on the wire grate in neat, efficient rows.
“I’m lazy,” she volunteered.
“No, you’re not,” I said.
“Yes, I am,” she said.
“You are not,” I said. “Look at you. My god.”
“Well, but I’m not doing my own work.” Anne meant her photography, she meant her writing, which she did in fits and starts.
“Well, still – you’re not lazy.”
“So you won’t accept my problem? I thought you were collecting. Shouldn’t you be impartial?”
I studied Anne, her squinty, direct gaze. The breeze riffled her hair, which she calls dishwater – every time we get together she wants me to dye it red. She swiped at a strand with a quick backhand and laid another shish kebob on the grate.
“Okay,” I said. “But I don’t believe it’s lazy. Something is – .” Oops.
I smiled. Anne smiled. Lazy, I wrote.
Assignment: Write a story with problems as characters. Describe what they wear, their hair.
The parable had made me wake up, as the Buddhists say, but the parable had not made me happy. Oh, the idea of the parable made me happy, but something was wrong – and getting wronger – and I could not make sense of it. I had spent the last few years solving my problems: the difficult marriage, the move, the new office, marrying the younger guy – and something was wrong?
I wanted to accept my problem, but I could not figure out what it was.
Question: If you do not think about your problems, where do they exist? (Tree falling in forest phenomenon.)
At the beach, a tall, sinuous woman in black leggings and purple Converse high-tops sauntered up cupping a wine glass – not plastic but her own glass goblet. She stared at the grill.
“Do they all have meat?” she asked.
Without turning, Anne gestured toward the other battered card table and said in the manner of a person reading a phonebook, “You can make one with only vegetables, Louise.”
“Oh,” Louise said. Deadpan behind mirrored aviator sunglasses, she stared at Anne, and then at me, one beat too long. Then she said, “All right,” and sauntered off.
“Can I change my problem?” Anne said.
When he wasn’t slopping after bugs – or whatever toads do when they aren’t harassing you – the Toad waxed foul in my ear about my personal failings: too selfish, too loud, too sharp, and all those past mistakes. He especially sneered at my work, questioning its worth, inflating the flaws. It was getting to me.
I had become a therapist because I thought it was important to help people, because I am a natural cheerleader, because my brain likes puzzles (detect, assess, sort, assist), because I needed to make a living, because I was too self-doubting to test other talents, because I hoped to figure out why my mother went crazy, because everyone was doing it, because the workings of humans fascinated me (permission to stare at talking faces!), and because I had healing to do, though I did not know that then. I was good at it, and I liked that. I also liked the stories. I liked the people. I learned a lot, and they (mostly) used what I learned to make their lives better, sometimes much better, at times to my surprise, always to my satisfaction. On occasion, the work seemed sacred – something that arose of its own accord as I sat with souls whose pain and whose courage were awe-inspiring.
But practicing psychotherapy had never felt like a calling to me the way it seemed to for others, and I had wondered if I was deficient in some way, especially since, at the moment I decided to apply to graduate school, I had heard in my head, like a bell tolling, You will help other people do their things instead of doing your thing.
Well, what was that supposed to mean? What “thing?” True, when I was young I had played piano; I learned guitar; I sang folk songs like Joan Baez. But not for one nanosecond did I believe I should become a singer. We didn’t do that in my family. We did academic things. Anyway, I had performance anxiety. So I ignored the tolling bell of doom and over the years as I practiced as a therapist, I did “things” on the side: sang in a choir; took classes in drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture; joined a writing group.
Excuse me, Toad, but what about this was abominable?
Assignment: Even though you know another problem will take its place, go ahead and solve one. Yours or someone else’s. Big or small.
“I went for seductive, when I should have gone for lovable.”
A small, dark-haired woman in black crop-pants, a skinny black t-shirt, and round, pink plastic sunglasses had planted herself in my path. She tilted her head in a way that reminded me of a nuthatch stalking an ant. I glanced at the prominent knobs of her collarbones. I reminded myself, stop that.
“I’m sorry?” I said.
She squinched up her bony shoulders. “Anne said you were collecting problems.” She nodded.
I nodded back, transfixed. Her entire body seemed to buzz, electricity housed in translucent skin.
Enunciating as though my grasp of the language was uncertain, she said, “I said, I went for seductive – which didn’t work. He wasn’t into seductive. I should have gone for lovable.”
“Oh! Okay. Thank you!”
She hopped off. I set my beer on the sand, flipped open my little pad, and extracted my pen. It hovered over the paper. What had she said? I went for seductive when I should have gone for lovable.
I couldn’t see it. Not lovable? She was adorable, little bird.
Sometimes I would endeavor to explain why I did these on-the-side things as though someone were condemning my frivolity. Or my conceit. One explanation I believed in: therapists need art. Spending so much time in other people’s soup can dissolve you. Having “good boundaries” is supposed to protect – but what do you do with the sorrows of others? How do you not give your heart? One psychologist I knew worked in her garden on Mondays, painted on Thursdays, and saw clients the other days. Another became a master potter, spinning deep, delicate rice bowls of porcelain on Wednesday mornings and Friday afternoons. Five of the six women in my first writing workshop were therapists. The psychiatrist in my office was a poet. On the side.
Question: Are your problems better than mine?
Louise, whom I learned was a model-actress-screenwriter-realtor, was again staring at me, now over her vegetable shish kebab. I nodded hello, again. I asked her the question.
“Well, my mother, who has x-ray vision for the fatal flaw, rules out every man I date, or woman, too, though that goes without saying – but I mean, she doesn’t have to forbid, nothing like brute force, because once she’s pointed out the fatal flaw, it’s over for me, I can’t get past it, so I haven’t had sex for, I don’t know, forever – which might be the plan – and she’s even more critical of me, but then she gives me money and vacations and stuff – only when she wants to; she has control issues – which is actually hostile – ”
“I’m looking for, you know, just one problem. Maybe something recent?”
“Oh,” Louise said. She twisted her mouth. “Recent.” She raised her eyebrows behind the aviator sunglasses. I waited.
“Well, at that craphole, Esalen – I always sneak into the hot tubs on the drive up from L.A. – they pissed me off so bad that on my way out I drove into a wall out of pure spite and took the side off my new Toyota.” She brandished a bare arm toward the cars on the roadside.
Did I follow up with: “Why were you pissed off?” “So does this happen often?” “Would you say anger is a problem in your life?”
I did not. I nodded and said, “Great!” And I wrote Took side off new Toyota out of pure spite. Esalen. That was it. I was done.
Assignment: Tie Problem-Ribbons in your hair. Get a haircut.
I became rabid: Problems Without Pathology! Happiness does not depend upon their eradication! But if problems were not weeds to be pulled, what was I doing in the office? It could have been the Toad polluting my thinking: I was railing against complexes, diagnoses, proscriptions and prescriptions, ranting about the Tyranny of Mental Health as though mental health were a bad thing. I called psychology flat, final, reductive.
“We pin issues on people like identification tags,” I snapped in consultation group one day. “Susan Sontag called it the aggression of interpretation. What’s to say that a client’s struggle is rooted in a complex rather than, oh, I don’t know, hormones? Or genetics.”
The purpose of consultation group was to explore psychological knowledge, not genetics or endocrinology. Why did it sound like some ignorant, evil conclave?
At the beach, people handed me problems as if I were asking for spare change and they had fists full. Beerman Brian? Louise. Anne, again? Louise. Rose? Well, Louise. This suggested some problems are contextual. The sun flamed copper and then plunged into the sea while I recorded In-laws. My thighs. Raging sexuality. Rude people – no. . . how about, Upstairs neighbor is not a nice person. By the bonfire, one reveler belted the theme from “Rawhide.” I thought about whether it was a problem that he knew every word of the theme song from a 1959 TV show. I took down Too much fun. Fatal indecision. My willpower is not what I thought it was. Bruce the Winemaker, who was driving the wine table with two drunken buddies, interrupted his soliloquy on terroir to raise his chin to the sky and roar, I was raised by wolves. I wrote it down. Carry on, I wanted to sing. It’s fine. There is no being done with problems until you die. And for Buddhists, you’ll be back.
It was dark, without a moon. The breeze was gentle off the water, and cool; the bonfire was mostly glowing cinders. The last partygoers had settled into quiet clusters of twos and threes. Fiddler Will sat alone by the dying fire, a skinny denim scarecrow with superlative teeth – the cigarette stains did not detract – and clear plastic glasses mended with band-aids.
I joined Will. I asked him the question. He raised his eyes, he squinted his eyes, he closed his eyes. He displayed the rack of teeth in the manner of a dentist’s model, as though they might ward me off. He laid his cheek on his fiddle and sawed a creaky little jig. Then he dragged the bow across the catgut strings in a stretched shriek.
“Shy guy,” he whispered.
Shy guy, I wrote. I resisted the impulse to draw him out. I could not resist the impulse to pat his arm.
Question: Why does it make you feel better about your problems to hear about someone else’s?
It was exhilarating, collecting. Exhilarating, relating to people without the Therapist mantle. I felt free. And when I came home, I could think again, and I began to sort out what my problem was. I speculated about what I might want to do about it. I had been railing against Psychology as though Psychology were bad, but Psychology was the same as it ever was. My problem was: I did not want to practice Psychology anymore. I hadn’t realized it earlier because, apparently, Quitting the Practice was against the Rules.
Or maybe I lacked courage. What would I have said if someone had asked at a party, “What is your problem?” Toenail fungus? The Toad on my shoulder?
Yes, there was self-interrogation – I mean, isn’t it always exhilarating to be on vacation? Don’t you always come home a new person? How could anyone decide anything, let alone something this big, because of a beach party? But I knew it was right: the Toad seemed to be off somewhere.
At our next office lunch, after murmuring through the usual – kitchen, scheduling, clients, consultation, kids – I apologized for how cranky I had been.
“I thought I might be depressed, but that’s not it. It’s just – well, I’m still interested in people. I’m just interested in thinking about them in a new way. You know, that is more, I don’t know, literary.”
“I love how writers make their characters so vivid.”
They didn’t get it. “Yeah. . . ” Because I hadn’t said it. “But – I think I’m tired. I think I’ve done what I have in me to do.” My heart was beating hard and my eyes felt like Basset Hound’s – sorry. “I think I’m going to quit psychotherapy.”
Nothing happened. No Hand of God knocked me flat; my mates did not turn me out. In fact, they beamed – That’s wonderful, Patricia – and we moved on. My officemates, my consultation group, my colleagues let me go. It was not shameful that I did not want to practice psychotherapy anymore. It was not a betrayal of my work or my clients. It did not negate what I’d done. Psychology was not a religion, where once you lose the faith you are officially a non-person. But I had treated it as though it were. I had believed that I had to do this work, had to keep trying, and every year, it cost me more. There is no doubt a psychological explanation, but I did not need to work it through. I just needed to say I’m done. Not so easy when what you’re done with is not only how you earn your keep, but, if not your actual “thing” (which, let’s face it, you may never discover your actual “thing” because “things” may not even exist because they are human constructions), it’s still your ”identity.”
But here’s the deal: How can you solve the new problem if you won’t allow for its existence?
Assignment: Build a little Problem House. Hang it in a tree.
That was a couple of years ago. It took time to say good-bye. Yes, I gave people two-years’ notice. It’s not regular life, it’s therapy.
Meanwhile, I have been working on the 83 Problems project. Besides collecting problems, I am making 83 ceramic heads. I like the number 83. Because I am a literal person. Which I accept.
First, I crafted one out of clay – well, I crafted a few, but I kept the one I liked, which I modeled on Adam Sandler because I like his nose. I got stuck on the ears – somehow, that took one entire August. When I figured it out, I made four separate molds and I started cranking out Adam Sandlers. (Not that anyone recognizes him.) I gave them different expressions. People usually assume each represents a particular problem but it doesn’t. I figure it’s up to the viewer to supply the problems.
Now that I’ve got the ears, I can’t figure out the body. The heads need to be posted on some kind of body so the viewer can be eye-to-eye, but I don’t like the prototypes I’ve tried – blocks, sticks, branches – maybe because every time I come up with something, I think about making 83 of them. My latest idea was plain rebar – industrial and man-made, just like problems – but heads on rebar might look like a Cannibal Thing. Can’t have that.
And I want the piece to be interactive but I don’t know how. Should I include the Parable, the Collection, the Questions and Assignments? I want to show the work outdoors: Green Lake, an urban lake in Seattle which people walk around talking about their problems. But I’ll need permits, helpers, a way to haul the heads. Maybe I should just research galleries so the piece can be up for longer than a day. Actually, my dream is to take the heads on the road and photograph them in different locations, not to mention spread the word about everyone having 83 problems – the mandate of the work, after all. But if I don’t have the gumption to install them at Green Lake, what will I do in Omaha?”
It is not fun, being stuck. I have to argue with the Toad – yes, him again – who is questioning the work’s worth, inflating its flaws. Not to mention harping on the never-ending past mistakes. Thank you, Toad. Also, please shut up. I’m working here.
Assignment: Make a little Problem Doll. Do whatever you like with it.