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Self-Portrait in Top Hat and Rowboat with Horn

by on August 05, 2011 5:59 AM

Row upon row of tiny faces stared at me. I felt like a performer facing an audience in a vast theater.

One of the figures tickled me: a baby in a top hat, chin up, blowing a horn. I plucked him from the shelf and stood him in the sand.

When I saw the boats I envisioned a littoral scene: beach and ocean. A literal littoral: the sand would function as sand.

But also as sea: I etched a diagonal furrow. The sand on one side of the line would be the beach, logically. The sand on the other side of the line would be the water, illogically.

I set a plastic rowboat next to the New Year's baby. Then I put the baby in the boat.

I put another boat behind the baby boat and found a loose-limbed, rubber-faced, tuxedoed sax player to stand in it.

I put in two or three more boats, all in a line, like a procession. I was going to put a musician in each one, but I found a seated figure that I positioned gazing off the stern of one of the vessels because it reminded me of a John Sloan painting I like, "The Wake of the Ferry."

I added a dolphin and a voluptuous mermaid and some buoys to the water, and, on the low wall that bordered the tray, a gull.

I decorated the beach the way the owner of a seafood joint might – with a lobster trap, an Adirondack chair, a couple of tiny beers next to the chair, a chicken roasting on a spit, an oar, a lighthouse, and Betty Boop leaning seductively against the lighthouse.

All I needed was someone to occupy the Adirondack chair. I wanted a seated figure, or one I could bend into a sitting position. I settled on a bearded fellow, rather severe looking, in vaguely futuristic garb – kind of like a Star Trek crewmember, but not. He would preside over it all.

And I saw everything that I had made, and behold, it was very good. Or at least I liked it.

                                                              * * *

What I've tried to describe is a sand tray session – or sand play session. Picture a rectangle about the size of a TV table with a frame around it just high enough to keep the sand in. And picture an array of small figures and objects, plastic, mostly, including Happy Meal toys, birds and animals, cars and trucks, food and drink, tables and chairs, funny guys and scary guys, warriors and angels, rocks and seashells.

All this can be found in the offices of therapists who use sand trays to get their clients – children, usually, but also adults – to express in a scene of their own creation what they might not be able to express in words.

I'm not in therapy, currently, but Han, my friend in California, is a therapist and when I visited her office recently, she encouraged me to have a go. When I was through, she asked me to give my creation a title. "The Blessing of the Fleet," I said without hesitation.

She thought my scene exuberant and why not? I was on vacation, I was with her, and I had lost myself in play, the way I used to get engrossed in building block towers with my kids. I decided I need to do more of this artsy-craftsy kind of playing.

Later that day it came to me that I was not only the bearded guy on the Adirondack throne, but the horn-tooting baby in the boat. The procession of boats, I said excitedly, was my mother's funeral, which had taken place earlier that week. I'm the baby of the family and I'm the one who gets called upon to preside at family gatherings – to sound the trumpet – probably because I'm a gasbag of a college prof, accustomed to speaking to groups.

The funeral was very much a celebration of my mother's life and it was held, on a 100-degree day, at my sister's house in Dallas. After the guests left, the family went out back to sit around the pool – a scene my sand tray tableau recalled. It was as if, self-conscious as I was at the outset – unlike the children Han sees, I knew my creation was going to be subject to interpretation – the unconscious took over through the act of playing. I felt like I had enacted a dream, which is exactly what Jungian therapist Dora Kalff envisioned when she articulated her thoughts about sand tray therapy in the 1950s.

At the risk of trivializing the therapy, I think it would be good to have a sand tray kicking around the house the same way it's good to have a deck of cards or a bucket of blocks: good party game equipment and good solitaire solace. Not to mention hours of amateur psychologizing fun!

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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