The Zen of Frank

As a student in the 1980s I had a Critical Analysis teacher who rarely turned up on time for lectures …

In fact, he often didn’t turn up until the very last moments of a session but always managed to hush his students’ chorus of criticism by turning the negative comments back on his accusers. 

In his first term of teaching me, I was as indignant as any other student. But as the months went by I observed his behaviour. With his educational conjuring, this quiet and charismatic man began to gain more and more of my attention. It seemed to me that Frank wasn’t skiving or avoiding teaching; he was watching us individually and as a class – sometimes from a vantage point elsewhere in the college. He enquired of us why it was we wasted the time he was ‘giving us’. Why did we ‘generally loaf around, smoke in doorways or hang out of windows’, especially as there was obviously so much still to learn?

It was the final term of the first year before Frank began to attend as many classes as we, his students, did. Several of us were still some way off working with the set texts our course was supposed to be about. And yet those same classmates were now engaged in infantile battles with Frank over whether he really did know the meaning of every word in the Oxford English Dictionary (from memory, he was never foiled). 

Youth and naivety potentially led us to waste a lot of our time along with projecting onto others the blame for our individual lack of performance.

The last time I saw Frank was, appropriately, a few moments before I left college for the final time. It was a hot summer’s day – the sort many small boys enjoy because of the huge numbers of flying ants building up to their nuptial flight. As I walked through the gates and headed for my motorbike, I caught a glimpse of Frank kneeling on the ground observing insects with more of an amused look of a young boy than a 60 year-old man.

I ambled over to him and we began to converse. A few sentences in, I delighted in telling him that I thought I’d probably learned more from his non-lessons than I had from all my other subjects combined. He smiled, and I continued: ‘And I think I understand what you were trying to do for us. It was all about taking responsibility for our own actions, doing our own work, seeing things how we see them and making use of that knowledge.’

I stopped and smiled back at him. He put out his hand, I accepted it, and we shook with vigour. ‘Keep thinking; keep watching; keep looking,’ he said. He turned away and got back down on his knees to continue his insect observation.

Almost 40 years on from the lessons of Frank, I suppose he will certainly have passed on from this mortal coil. However, his facilitating approach hasn’t. The unconventional methods deployed during those Critical Analysis lessons would be impossible to use in a teaching role this century – and yet from a therapeutic chair they still look deeply valuable. Frank’s style was rooted in creating informed, personal growth. For some of us at least, the approach lay good grounds for the development of complex grey thinking in a world of blacks and whites, but there was much more in it than that. 

These days, when Frank crosses my mind during a session I can be pretty certain that the work of growth is deeply in play – the focus in those moments will so often have turned towards becoming truly, richly, deeply the person they were looking to become before everything else got in their way. Frank didn’t appear to care for the ego of attribution of knowledge, only that you learn and find the things you need for your journey. But once in a while I like to mention his name, to tell others of a great teacher who has stayed with me – as relevant in therapy as he was in the arts. 

Duncan acknowledges …

… with thanks, a recent session where he saw the growth of another and was reminded through this the roots of his own continuing development.

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

How to spend a penny

On a morning train from Cambridge to London a woman looks up from her paperback offering me a smile as I sit opposite her. I take out my laptop to begin writing a blog about art in the consulting room …

An older couple join us. Before sitting down the man picks up a penny from the floor, places it on the table and declares, ‘Look dear, good fortune; I’ll be lucky all day.’

‘Ooh, don’t spend it all at once!’ is his wife’s scripted reply. They’re sharing their ritualised interaction with the woman and me – drawing us both into a performative intimacy peculiar to passengers sharing confined space on a train journey. We duly return their smiles. It would be ungenerous not joining in with their warm banal exchange. They have, after all, tried to establish civility between strangers pushed together around a small table.

Back to my blog, and I’m struggling with my thoughts about the intangible heart of the piece. My eyes dart back to the penny. A playful voice in my head says, ‘Pick it up; put it in your pocket.’ A flash of excitement – thoughts rush in and the moment is gone. The voice rebukes, ‘Why didn’t you pick it up?’ The subversiveness of the creative act would now feel contrived; this is a familiar double-bind. Second thoughts come wanting to know why and what I’d be doing, their intrusiveness inhibiting any spontaneity.

The man is now engrossed in his crossword, his wife and the lone woman are reading paperbacks. The now-neglected penny has been spent as a cheap catalyst for social bonding. And yet it’s somehow become a talisman for my stuckness and creativity. I can tell I’m not yet done with it.

A few minutes from King’s Cross the man looks up from his paper and says to his wife, ‘I’m stuck, I can’t finish it.’

‘That’s not like you.’ His wife’s tone is consoling. ‘Maybe it’s a particularly difficult one today?’

Immediately a voice from a dark corner of my mind blurts out, ‘Perhaps it’s early-onset!’

I scan the husband and wife, ‘Phew, I didn’t say that out loud.’ A rush of energy rises up into my chest; the unspoken thought has mobilised me and my eyes dart back to the coin. I see my hand reach out, pick up the penny and pop it into my pocket, ‘Wow! Look what I’ve found; now that’s a sign of good luck!’ I sense three pairs of eyes fixing on me.

The lone traveller shoots daggers at me, her silent expression speaks volumes. Her cold gaze reassures me of my transgression. She is perhaps outraged by my behaviour, her discomfort conceivably much to do with her apparent inability to speak. She’s unwittingly let herself become a passive bystander, but to what? What has she just witnessed?

The couple look perplexed and smile nervously to one another. Then looking at the man I add, ‘So that’s you and me – we’re both lucky today.’ This seems to ease the couple’s tension. They let out a stilted laugh, and still the lone woman remains stony faced. I’ll not speak to her – I don’t want to rob her of her experience.

‘Do you want the penny back?’ My question takes me by surprise; I’m aware the man still hasn’t made eye contact with me. I hope my question doesn’t dissipate the charge around the table.

‘No it’s okay,’ he utters, directing his words to the table where the penny had been.

‘I won’t give it back anyway!’ With this comment I feel playful and ridiculous. It reassures me I’m not trying to repair something. To do so would belittle us both, and it would detract from the charge. It struck me that I hadn’t actually offered to give his coin back; rather I wanted to gauge the impact it’d had on him. It’s as though my mind hadn’t yet caught up with the act. The energy I felt was like a wave that swept before me, or perhaps I was swept away with it.

Although arguably I’d just robbed a senior citizen on a train in broad daylight, all of us were the richer for it. With a penny that hadn’t belonged to me a multiplication miracle had occurred, ‘loaves and fishes’; a single coin had multiplied in value and was shared among everyone.

For the rest of the journey the couple reminisced about decimalisation. I tuned out of their conversation and wondered what sort of currency the penny had turned into? It’d done more than just break the constraints of a contrived social interaction. It was the simple alchemy of play that had transformed scripted civility into something else entirely, and had, for a brief moment, made a penny priceless.

 

Glenn recommends …

… (not) knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.