NDJ:7 Billie A. Pivnick, PhD

Falling Down and Rising Up

As a little girl I loved snowflakes. Upon spotting the swirling flurries that signaled the larger flakes’ coming curtain call, I scurried to suit up. As the quiet descended with the flakes, I’d rush out of doors to collect them in my little beach pail. Seemingly alone under cover of silence, I’d scoop them up and run indoors to inspect their individual structures. How disappointed I was when before I could even take off my snowsuit, they had disappeared. I longed to make them last. I soon learned that I could make imitation snowflakes by folding and cutting paper and in that way create my own – more lasting – snow crystals. But these lacked the real flakes’ complexity – visible only on frozen windows. Nor did they mimic the real flakes’ frosty taste – that indescribably delicious sweetness when the snow turned to liquid on my tongue. Before I had words for the idea of transformation, I knew that part of what was wonderful about snow was its sup-prizes. I had more success with collecting them in snowball form. I could keep them longer if I deposited the balls in my freezer. But as ice, they became hard – more bullet than ballerina. Rolling them into giant snowmen made them stick around longer – pressed together they were still snowy and showy – but the guardians of my pleasure were usually knocked over by marauding boys.

Snow forts formed my final barricades against the ravages of time and temper. One of the best tricks made possible by snowflakes was the way they allowed me to write messages in the frost they deposited or scrape them off entirely – the original Etch a Sketch. This didn’t preserve the snow exactly, but it seemed to give me more control over the depositing and disappearing. No matter what I tried, though, the snow was destined to fall away; and I began to love fortresses. Snow was not all that fell during those years. My mother had the falling sickness – epilepsy – which led her, too, to puddle periodically. And my uncle, a rabbi made famous by his agnosticism, had a major fall from grace after Time Magazine featured him as the atheist rabbi in its God is Dead issue in the mid-sixties. From them I learned both the horror of shameful unraveling and the dignity bestowed by picking oneself up, collecting oneself anew, and making another stand. So it didn’t seem so coincidental to me that I was the psychologist picked by the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s design team to help rebuild after the fall of the two trade center towers. None of us could prevent their collapse, but I knew something about how to get on after a series of major falls.

In the past four years, it is as if the falling figures have multiplied. While I was happily scratching letters on papered white surfaces, my uncle was felled by a drunk driver, my mother fell victim to a car crash and two falls that left her bones broken, my husband fell ill with cardiac disease, my kids fell out of formation within our adoptive family to pick up a few genetic loose ends, and my father’s personality fell away as the tangles of Alzheimer’s took over. And both my mother- and father-in-law succumbed to death. This time New Directions provided the battlements that kept me standing. The two-page papers were my cute cut snowflakes, the Saturday assignments snowballed into competence with the essay form, and my Sunday group watched, jeered, and cheered as I struggled to be heard from behind my iciest fortifications. Two of these cut crystals managed to stand as presentations – with promise of future life in print. Etched, erased, then written again, a few others formed ideas that have yet to melt entirely away. For them, like me, it’s been a long winter. But this late spring means I still have time to refashion them into words that will outlast time’s destructiveness.

Words, like flakes, fall on our ears. But snowballing, they accrete without melting. Thank you, New Directions. These verbal flurries of mine this time are my illusory but comforting bulwark against the ultimate curtain fall. Meanwhile, I’ve remembered that snow is lively, promoting lots of slithery and sloppy play and that falling can be fun if the snow is powdery. At my very first small group meeting three years ago, I was told to rewrite overnight my two-plus page paper on play so it looked less like a publishable but frozen essay — thesis statement, clinical example, summary recommendations, and three footnotes. I carved a supple story about an interaction I’d had with a patient whom I called “the tiny Titanic” – a counterpart to my titanic Tinkerbell self-state. Powder snow.

During a writing block that lasted the better part of twenty years I couldn’t even rewrite my dissertation for publication. In the time I’ve been here, I’ve published two articles in professional journals, given two talks at professional conferences, been invited to contribute an article and a book chapter, as well as several more talks. I’ve even created a panel for the August APA meetings, in which I’ll talk about the challenges of creating an ethical community of memory following 9/11. With the help of my friends in New Directions, I am rising up. As I write this, I notice I can no longer find my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad internal audience. In its stead I now have many memories of this heartwarming community with whom I can be both a fighter and a flake.