Wordsanctuary Revisited

Musings of a writer-teacher-counselor.

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Location: Cleveland, Ohio, United States

I am inquisitive and have worked in writing, editing, and teaching. I am a citizen of the USA and also concerned about the world. This is an addendum to my original blog, Wordsanctuary. That's at www.wordsanctuary.blogspot.com Please check out my column at www.insidehighered.com, "A Kinder Campus." Click on Career Advice to find it. Thanks for stopping by.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Out of Her Shell

"Behold the turtle: He can only make progress when he sticks his neck out."
-James B. Conant

In a duplex on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights lived three sisters in an immigrant family struggling to survive. The adjustment to a new land was difficult but preferable to being close to memories of the Nazi regime. As the youngest of three, “Baby Margie” – as she hated to be called -- was easily dwarfed by her tall, beautiful, smart and popular sisters. She resembled a poor imitation of Shirley Temple with her wayward hair whereas her glamorous sisters resembled a stately Jacqueline Kennedy or, perhaps, Barbie. Margie may have been the only family member born on American soil, but she was not very bold. Or was she …

While her sisters were doing all the things people seven and eight years older than her did – trysts with friends and excursions on foot to fun places – Margie explored the world closest to her -- flowers, birds, her dog, her turtle, books and crayons.

Psychologist Alfred Adler contemplated how sibling order influences personality, coining terms like inferiority complex and sibling rivalry. He established this insight having two older siblings of his own. Perhaps had he felt he was the favored child, he might not have acquired insights that still reverberate today.

Adler proposed that “personality difficulties are rooted in a feeling of inferiority deriving from restrictions on the individual's need for self-assertion” (Fisher 2001). But he also felt that people do transcend the limits of their environment with individual powers of adaptation and drive.

Margie did what came naturally for kids: to imagine. Each week, she would not answer to her own name, preferring to respond to Cinderella, Rose Red or Snow White – whatever story had been read to her by her mom.

Years later, in school, when her teachers would ponder Margie’s shyness as compared to more verbal friends, she would bristle, especially when she heard this expression: “We wish she would come out of her shell.” A shell suited her just fine.


Perhaps an early sign that she could think “out of the box” – the crayon box – came with her drawings on the celery green dining room wall. She can remember the sensation of drawing on that wall more than 50 years later. How could that be wrong when it felt right? She was about three, no more than four.

Her mom was upset and scrubbed the wall down with a powerful cleanser and a sponge.

The next morning, out came the crayons and another picture.

Mrs. Shine, exasperated, asked the tenant upstairs for her opinion on this behavior.

“Buy her a blackboard” was the wise reply.

First it was a blackboard about the size of a notebook. It came with a small duck sponge. Soon, it was one on an easel, which made the shy girl a neighborhood celebrity. Margie began holding school in her basement -- even though she had never attended school. Even the neighborhood bully showed up.


Margie’s mom was a skilled pianist. When she would play, the slow-moving Margie would sometimes dance around the house. “You are not allowed to run in here,” her dad would say, stopping that experiment. It took decades for her to muster the courage to take dance, well past the age when most girls did: ballet, folk, modern. Even choreography. When she heard Merce Cunningham, renowned dancer and choreographer, speak at a seminar, an idea made a lasting impression. “A choreographer can work anywhere, within the parameters of the space,” he said. “Even in an elevator.”

“Dancing in an elevator” became her mantra. When life hems one in -- and one must function with restrictions – how to thrive?

Turtles know. They swim, crawl, stretch, withdraw. Even in an elevator.


No one ever said to her: “Poetry is a good way to express yourself.” She somehow found her way there one day when she was eight. She sat down one Saturday at the dining room table and five poems spilled out, effortlessly. She remembers the magical feeling, inspiration. As you’d figure, being something of a turtle, she kept the poems to herself.

But a few months later, her mother was seriously ill in the hospital and Margie was terrified. Somehow, she brought herself to tell her third grade teacher about her worries. This itself was very rare. Her teacher listened.

And somehow Margaret revealed that she had written some poems, and her teacher’s face lit up. “If you ever want to show them to me, you can.”


Fast forward: decades. The little girl, now grown and known as Maria, was again worried about a health crisis, visiting a favorite cousin who had an amputation shortly before Christmas 2011. It was a day she barely could get herself to the hospital, feeling helpless to relieve her cousin’s suffering. She pushed herself to navigate the maze of hospital buildings and wait in a darkened room as her cousin was detained in physical therapy. To compensate for the loss of a limb, every other part of the body is strengthened and pushed to its limits and beyond. When her cousin was wheeled back in, Maria saw sheer exhaustion in her face and shadows under her eyes.

As they sat together with the sun setting outside, a dark-haired intern, Nicholas, lingered in the hall outside the room, He knocked, then entered, holding a case that contained a musical instrument.

Maria wondered if he might be a caroler, and he spoke so gently.

“Oh yeah, he’s the music therapist,” Silvia said. All cylinders fired in Maria’s brain. Real music therapy. Here. Now. She had taught herself to play the piano while working her way through teenage depression. Her mother had brought out the accordion or guitar whenever one of the family was sick. She sang in a choir after her dad had died. Music reaches right into the heart -- where traditional language cannot.

Nicholas had the gifts of a great therapist: rapport, talent and the most ineffable quality of all: empathy. His voice could make ice melt.

Maria learned that Deforia Lane, Nicholas’s supervisor, might stop by. Hearing that, she told her cousin: “Silvia, you must be a VIP if she’s coming in here!” Silvia looked skeptical. Life had been too hard – job loss, foreclosure, health crisis after health crisis – to believe that for one minute.

But the legend herself – for whom a wing at Rainbow Hospital is named – soon entered the room with a desire to help. Obviously, music is her gift but only – only -- if shared with someone else.

“I just asked if she could visit me because she sings so well,” my cousin said.

So Nicholas, with a voice of silver, and Deforia, of gold, sang. But not without Silvia singing too. Nicholas had adapted melodies of her favorite songs and inserted other words relating to her and her family. He gave her a keyboard, partially preprogrammed. Anything she’d tap out would chime in -- but still allow freedom.

Maria asked for a triangle but got a marocca instead. Nicholas led them in breathing exercises to relax, and Silvia said she felt relaxed enough to fall asleep.

Carrying a dinner tray, the nurse’s aide danced in on cue. An afternoon of anguish turned into a celebration.


If born into another household, Maria might have had music or dance or art lessons. But as it turned out, her most accessible and affordable medium over the long term was the written word. Maybe what her grade school teachers said was not so terrible after all. And today she does collect turtles in every medium, from coal to brick to metal to crystal to plastic. Going on 300 turtles, but who’s counting. She likes the metaphor.

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