Rivers, seagulls and modelling

Where I grew up, in a town, the river was wide and flowed grey like a road, contained in places with concrete banks and elsewhere frequently flooding. Ten or fifteen miles away the river met the sea, but by that stage it wasn’t really clear what was sea and what was river, as the salt marshes extended for miles and beyond that the inaccessible mudflats merged with grey seas and skies. Where I live now the river scuttles rather than flows, except when it flooded and threatened all our houses with dark, smelly water. These images of rivers come readily to mind, along with the Thames with boats and bridges and paintings by Constable of a river not far from here. My American sister in law and I discussed how Constable’s paintings had such different meanings for us, although we share a lifelong interest in the visual arts. For me the landscape in paintings such as The Haywain was familiar, plausible and tangible. For her it only came to life when we stood by the river at Christmas and started to discuss it: until then it had been alien, a stereotype of English countryside.

I was thinking about rivers tonight in one of my occasional struggles to understand the appeal of the Kawa model for occupational therapists. I have had the model explained to me a number of times over the past ten years. Tonight my efforts were oriented to getting beyond the idea of using a prescribed metaphor to start a conversation about life goals and struggles. I wondered what metaphor I would use if I was having such a conversation.

I was struck by a memory of a seagull. I was about fourteen, standing by railings on a seafront and watching the seagulls with my mother. We were idly chatting, a conversation of no consequence until she offered to sell me one of the seagulls. I offered her two pennies and she accepted. I handed the money over and she told me which seagull was mine. After that I would double check whether my seagull was nearby, and inevitably my mother would confirm it was.

Cynically this could be understood as an early experience of the ruthless dishonesty of market-based exchanges, with my mother selling me something which could not be sold. It could signify that even then, in the 1970s, capitalism had suffused our souls. I readily accepted the role of consumer, making an offer without hesitation. But that seagull could also be seen as a transitional object, as described by Winnicott. As I made the transition from teenager to young adult, moving away from home, the seagull accompanied me. When I was 17 I wrote a song about it, focused on the seagull’s freedom to transcend gravity and rise above the immediate world around me. The money I had paid my mother was a token amount, securing my possession of her imaginative act and enabling me to feel a connection with her as I moved on and away.

So seagulls and rivers have multiple meanings and possibilities for me, and I haven’t even started to unravel how the two, seagulls and rivers, might be connected culturally for me, as someone who has grown up on a densely populated island, where wealth has accumulated through trading links historically centred around rivers and the sea. My imagination and my artistry make me resistant to one understanding: to clip art, to stereotypes, to cliches. Now I live close to a river again, my imagination is refreshed: no shopping trolleys in this local river, but a little egret stepping carefully across the stones just under the surface of the water. A healthy, beautiful river: but not so long ago it threatened our health when it flooded and back filled the drains.

So, for me, the idea of using a metaphor to support a therapeutic conversation has to be a negotiated and creative process. A model might help me conceptualise what I’m doing and ensure I focus in a helpful way. I can see that. In a life drawing session, having a model makes It easy to focus initially. But every life drawing I’ve done has been different. I have modelled or created a different image. To me, focusing on the model more than the modelling/drawing misses the point of life drawing, or indeed occupational therapy. The interesting bit is what you can co-create to support, enable or facilitate solutions to health and social problems. It’s different every time. With projective techniques the possibilities are endless but the meanings are determined by the person receiving therapy, not the therapist. When I worked in social care, a person’s house was alive with projective or imaginative possibilities which had to be acknowledged, for any scale of environmental adaptation. So if a person wanted to see their life as a river, with driftwood and rocks acting as facilitators and barriers, well that’s fine. But with a bit of imagination, there’s many other possibilities. And in my own life and family, as a daughter, a mother, a sister, a sister-in-law, an auntie, my attention switches constantly, generating more imaginative possibilities and wonderful ironies.