Thursday, 17 February 2011

Tea and Therapy

Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.
Graham Greene (1904-1991)

IT IS MY HABIT, for better or worse, to hurry home from certain occasions and experiences that are interesting to me and to scribble hand-written notes on the subject and to write up conversations word-for-word. When it is convenient, I type the notes up and keep them as work-papers in my computer. Eventually, the particular event may be revisited. For me, this is a kind of therapy.

And so it happens that I have fifteen pages of typewritten notes created from impressions gathered at a November birthday party spent with about a half-dozen friends of mine, and a subsequent afternoon tea party in December to celebrate a book that one of the same group had just had published. This happened in 2002, and the notes have been waiting to see the light of day (and reason) for over a year. The birthday party will have to wait a while to be recreated, but the gathering of about twenty friends and acquaintances for a literary tea is about to go down on the printed page. I'll call it "Tea and Therapy" and hope to amuse.

[This article first appeared in Defenestration, an online literary magazine, in June 2004.]

You are going to meet some of my friends and a very odd therapist. If my lay friends are peculiar, and they really are, it is my experience that one of the strangest people I have ever encountered is a psychiatric therapist. More than a psychiatrist, this gentleman is a psychoanalyst, with, I imagine, a wall covered in diplomas and, I trust, a file full of "Thank You!" letters. My own therapist knows him, and recommends him as a colleague and an amusing personality.

I first met this curious fellow at a combined Christmas high tea and book launching, so let us go there now.

Several of my friends attended the party, and I've known the host - a Bermudian writer who specializes in local history books - since he wrote about the ghost that haunts a home my father lived in for a time. I had not appreciated that my friend, the writer, was in therapy. His guest of honour was his therapist.

When I walked into the rather grand old Bermuda home, I was met by the anxious author of the book being launched (or dedicated, autographed and handed out at least ... no books flew through the air) who warned me that I could not under any circumstances review his book in the newspaper. It was not because of my poor reviewing skills on other occasions; it was simply that the book was a personal effort, not for commercial sale or profit. Rather, a gift to the author's friends and, I think, selected family members.

The book featured family photographs with captions, the writer was identified and his picture shown on the cover. It seemed obvious to me that it was hardly a secretive document.

"It's about my sexual awakening," whispered the host.
"I see. I can imagine you don't want that reviewed!" I tried to create a bit of humour to lighten the atmosphere. Actually, I'm a bit of a smart-arse and I couldn't resist making the remark.
“A very limited number of copies and all will be handed out personally,” and he pointed to a cardboard box much bigger than a breadbin.

In a large room with an open-beamed ceiling and a blazing log fire in the hearth, the author started signing books from the box and passing them along to each of his guests, who were sipping tea, and nibbling finger sandwiches, slices of cake and dainty pastries.

Every adult at the party, and quite likely the two youngsters present, eventually received a copy of the book, autographed and personalized. Each recipient seemed to examine the cover, open the book to the dedication, flip to a page or two at random, and then would slip the book onto a side-table or onto the floor. There were no public or private readings aloud from the text itself, and the book was not openly discussed, if at all.

The dedication in my copy indicated that the writer appreciated my "wonderful messages", which the author had detected in my weekly newspaper column.

It is not my intention to review anyone's sexual awakening here, except to say this one detailed by my friend was loud to the point of having his neighbours at a noted boys’ boarding school banging on the walls and, apparently, was more than satisfactory for all concerned. As I am a bit hard of hearing, anything at increased volume gets my thumbs up!

Playing at being a therapist, I now sense that the book that I will not review was discussed with, and encouraged by, the author's own therapist. It reads like the revelations you might offer to your professional confidant and close friends, if not all your immediate family. The therapist had been invited to the tea for the wisdom and encouragement given the writer, and I don't think he had the meter running for the hour he spent with us all.

My friend with the tell-nearly-all book must have spent a fair bit of money for his therapeutic publication. It is a beautifully designed and printed hardcover effort. I rather liked the story too. The writer entertained his readers, added to the body of artistic literature in Bermuda, and had some therapy in the bargain, all under the watchful gaze of a psychoanalyst. And what a curious fellow this analyst turned out to be.

I was eventually introduced to the honoured party guest. A firm handshake, as you'd expect from a medical professional. He had his wife and two teenage daughters with him. I met them quickly, more handshakes and first names exchanged (and forgotten, I’m afraid).

"So you are Ross Eldridge?" asked the doctor. "I read your column in The Mid-Ocean News each weekend."
"Don't be put off by that," I replied. "I'm not such a mad or bad person in real life." (I forgot that one should never use the words "mad" and "bad" and "real life" around those in the psychiatric field.)
"But, Ross, you don't look at all like the photograph in the newspaper by-line." It's true, the photograph was many months old and I'd grown my hair longer and had quit wearing my reading glasses.
"It's me, it really is!"
"Is there a copy of this week's Mid-Ocean News here?" asked the doctor. There was. He looked at the newspaper and looked at me, and again at the newspaper. "It really doesn't seem to be you. Are you sure you don't write for another newspaper?"
And I thought to myself: "Here's a conversation to write down tonight!"

After that introduction, I sat on a sofa with my tea (in a cup and saucer that had arrived in Bermuda in a barrel of sawdust or flour on a sailing ship more than two centuries ago, which made my hands shake to think on) and noticed that our host-author was engaged in loud conversation with the wife of the psychiatrist. I could hear the words quite clearly. She was talking to my friend while listening absent-mindedly to a mobile phone held to her ear, and looking around at the party guests. That might indicate a broad mind, the kind I lack, the ability to multi-task.

"I say," she said to the author, "did you celebrate Hanukkah this year?"
"Well, no. This is my only party this month. It's for Christmas and, besides, I'm not Jewish."
"I understand. Hanukkah was very early this year."
One of the daughters gasped and asked, quite audibly, "Mummy-Darling, doesn't that mean Christmas will be early this year too?"
"I'm afraid so."
"So early! So early!" The young girl looked to be close to tears.
Her sister, however, turned to the analyst, asking, "Daddy, what jewels are you getting us this Christmas?"
"They will have to be rubies or emeralds, of course. It is Christmas after all!"
"I do so adore rubies, Daddy."
"For myself, I'm thinking of getting some star sapphires. One can get so lost in star sapphires. I might even have a diadem made for me." The analyst reached up and posed his fingers like a crown on his head.

I'd met quite a few therapists over the years, but never one like this. Of course, he was not sitting behind a doctor’s desk or alongside a couch on this winter’s afternoon. It seemed that psychiatrists might be people too. Weird people! The daughters, who I probably should not lampoon bearing in mind their ages and delicate sensibilities, then seemed to forget about jewellery and precious stones.

"We sat next to two virgins on the flight to Bermuda," one daughter informed us all.
"Yes, one was seventeen and the other twenty-five," chirped her sister.

At this point, I very nearly had to be a nosy reporter. "How," I wondered, "did they know these fellow passengers were virgins?" I restrained myself and figured that they probably simply asked, and were given clear answers to their rather personal questions. This sort of thing might not be strange in the First Class Cabin on British Airways.

The best part of an hour having passed, the psychiatrist and his family grouped together and prepared to take leave of the party, clutching their four copies of the book we'd received in a kind of Holy (or Unholy) Communion. Kisses and thanks were exchanged with the host; they were that kind of guests.

I thought the party would surely grind to a halt. Could a group such as this continue to function without a resident therapist? Yet, there were a few more public offerings and notes for me to take.

One guest was trying to convert an elegant young woman to the Animal Rights Cause. Cleverly, he used the description of the person stroking a warm bunny's fur to inform her how such things lower our blood pressure, get us in touch with nature, and benefit us in so many ways.

"Yes," replied the well-dressed woman, "I quite understand that. I have a fifty-two-inch mink coat and I love to stroke it." [I have a sudden memory of my blue, lucky rabbit's foot that I lost while on holiday at the seaside in England as a little boy. My luck never really recovered from that.]

The PETA activist immediately looked nauseous and almost speechless, and stuffed some angel-food cake into his mouth hurriedly with his stubby fingers. I know that eating is often a symptom and result of anxiety and distress for some of us. The man was somewhat overweight. "This needs hot custard! Hot custard!" and then there was a horrified silence.

When it came time for me to leave, my host whispered again the words he had inscribed in my copy of his book.

"I got the inspiration to write my story partly from some things I read in your newspaper column. I feel you are sending me messages. Thank you for the messages!" The host did not kiss me goodbye.
"I am not that kind of guest, or it is not that kind of party," I thought to myself. "But what do I know? I only write a newspaper column, not a tell-nearly-all book."

I'll mention all this to my own therapist.

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