My therapist Katarina asked me if I was up for trying something a little different from the usual chitchat the other night, and I said sure why not. So she went into a closet and brought out a slender, wooden box filled with sand.
“This is what’s called Jungian sandplay therapy, and it’s sometimes used if you’ve had severe trauma,” she explained. “Go ahead, put your hands in it and move the sand around. Do you see the blue bottom underneath the sand? That’s the water!”
I immediately smiled. “Do you recall the name of my blog and what I have tattooed on my left forearm?” I asked, which made her smile.
She then instructed me to go into the closet and choose whatever I liked—toys, trinkets, baubles or knickknacks—and place them wherever I like in the sand tray. She also suggested that I avoid overthinking it, that I should just go with the flow and enjoy myself.
The basic idea, as I understand it, was to create a play world that reflected certain aspects of my life, while at the same time tapping into my inner world, my unconscious, child-like psyche. Which things I chose and where I placed them on the tray would have some type of symbolic or metaphoric meaning. Then Katarina and I would talk about my choices and help me connect the play world with whatever is happening in the real world…and I have no fuckin’ clue what was supposed to happen after that.
For the next 20 minutes, Katarina sat quietly taking copious notes while I went in and out of the closet, strategically but also unconsciously, placing various objects in the sand tray. There was a whole bunch of crap in there, mainly the kind of discarded stuff that you might find at a weekend garage sale. There were also small curios, porcelain-y figurines that you might see displayed on a miniature shelf (like the one in my house), but my eyes immediately went straight to the toys, particularly the action figures and, even more particularly, the Batman action figures.
When Rob was a little boy, he was obsessed with all things Batman, and I hunted down and purchased every Batman toy and accessory under the Gotham City sun, except for one—the diabolical supervillain Mr. Freeze. I remember telling everyone I knew to keep on the lookout for it, and a few years later I received a package out of the blue from a writer friend who lived in London. Inside it was the elusive Mr. Freeze action figure. So long story short, two Batman toys went into the sand tray to start things off. Even now, after all is said and done, Rob still comes first.
I then picked up a small witch figure and a miniature Woody from Toy Story and placed them next to the Batmen. I was drawn to the witch because she looked like a Tim Burton character who could’ve been in Nightmare Before Christmas, an all-time fave of Rob’s, and Woody is just something anyone who has been a parent or a child would gravitate to.
This seems like as good a time as any to tell you about some of the things I didn’t choose. For instance, there was a small wooden penis sitting next to a small wooden vagina. I had to ask Katarina if anyone had ever selected those objects to frolic in the sand tray.
“Not yet,” she said and laughed, to which I added a long “Ewww.”
There were also entirely too many creepy dolls that looked like they were straight out of The Twilight Zone, and a lot of shiny, crystal-y things that my subconscious and conscious mutually agreed to stay away from.
The next items I chose were a very cool-looking Chinese dragon, the kind you’d see in the Golden Dragon Parade here in L.A., because I thought it would make a fantastic tattoo, and a small pirate figure brandishing a sword. The swashbuckler made me think of that crappy Spielberg movie Hook, which forever holds a special place in my heart because it was really less about Peter Pan and the Lost Boys and more about lost fathers and their sons.
There was a small wooden box with some notepaper and a purple pen resting on top of it. That was a no-brainer. After I placed it in the tray, I thought about putting it back in the closet because it was too on-the-nose. I felt like my consciousness(es) are so much better than that.
So I doubled down instead and picked up an even smaller wooden box with a few tiny farmhouses painted on the lid. I felt the excitement of anticipation before I opened it up and was immediately disappointed to find nothing inside. If that wasn’t a perfect metaphor for my life, I don’t know what is. That strangely led me to pick up a bubble toy with a bloodshot eyeball, the kind of thing you’d get in an old gumball machine. I placed it near the dragon and then put the empty box near Rob’s toys. All of a sudden, I felt like I was inside a Salvador Dali painting.
Opening a plastic container all the way at the bottom of the closet, I found a cache of vintage Matchbox cars. I picked three that were right at the top and positioned them in the corner near Rob’s other toys. My first thought about why I chose them was that Rob and Zach loved racing these little toy cars when they were kids, but then I remembered all of the car accidents Rob was in. For a moment, I was tempted to go back in the closet and add a few more vehicles to the tray.
At the top of the closet, I noticed a Russian Matryoshka nesting doll, which made me think of how I played with one in my grandmother’s house while she cooked sweet and sour meatballs and kreplach. I placed the doll in a corner all by itself because it represented a tender memory from my childhood. And that led me to select a yo-yo, which was always one of my favorite toys. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent alone in my room trying to master tricks like Walk the Dog and Shoot the Moon. It became an obsessive act, much like writing this blog. I placed it right next to Woody.
I then picked out two conch shells because how can you have the sand and the water without seashells? I remembered putting them up to my ear to hear the ocean when I went to the beach with my mom and, later on, telling Rob and Zach to do the same thing when we were at my brother-in-law Stephen’s beach house. This trick doesn’t work so well in a therapist’s office, but even so I put them in the tray next to the Russian doll.
I was genuinely fascinated by this exercise and thought that Carl Jung really knew how to make grief therapy fun. And then I lit up when I saw two articulated, hardwood modeling figures, the kind of things I imagined would be in Maura’s art classes. One of them was much taller than the other, and I placed them together in a special corner where they could shut out the rest of the world and just be by themselves.
The last four objects were all symbols—a porcelain fairy, a blue crystal Buddha, a smooth rock with the word Change on it and, finally, a red rubber heart wearing a smiley face. Some of these things were self-explanatory and I’m still wondering about the others, but after I placed the heart right at the top of the sand tray, I knew it was time to stop.
Katarina and I sat down and started to discuss all of this.
“Remind me again, what are the words on your arm?” she asked.
As I began to say the words you’ve heard plenty of times (You are the sand, little boy…), I got choked up and had to stop for a few moments before I regained my composure and was able to finish the sentence (…and I will always be the water). I had no idea why I was crying, and we just looked at each other until I finally said, “I think our time is up.”