Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith

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Poem: "The Great Art of Life"

This poem is spillover from the March 1, 2016 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from [personal profile] dialecticdreamer and [personal profile] technoshaman. It has been selected in an audience poll as the free epic for the June 7, 2016 Poetry Fishbowl meeting its $200 goal. This poem belongs to the Shiv thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.


"The Great Art of Life"

Shiv was freaking out.

After he took that stupid bet
from Dr. G, he had spent the rest
of that day filling out worksheets and
batting around a speed bag in the gym.

Today was worse. The memory
itched at him, like a splinter under
his skin that he couldn't pick loose.

The safety lecture in the shop room
wasn't scheduled until tomorrow, and
he hated the idea of studying for it.

For now, Shiv had nothing to do
but sit in his cell and stew.

He didn't even realize that he was
whacking the tablet against his desk
until Rosie called on the viewscreen
and asked him what was wrong.

"I'm a fuckin' idiot," Shiv snapped.

"That doesn't sound good,"
Rosie said. "What has you
so disappointed in yourself?"

So Shiv told him about the bet
and how hard the homework was and
that he didn't want to do it because
he had no intention of ever taking
classes if he could avoid it.

"It sounds like you could use
a good distraction," Rosie said.
"I think I have just the thing. I've
been working on something for you,
but it's not quite done yet. Give me
an hour to finish putting it together,
and then meet me in the craft room."

Despite all the extra activities
that he'd been doing, Shiv was
relatively flush in points, because
he'd also done a ton of paperwork.

"Okay," he said, keenly curious
to see what Rosie had in mind.

Whatever it was, the craft room
activities usually didn't suck.

When Mr. Vanburen came to get him,
Shiv went along willingly, and when Shiv
saw the twinkle in his eye, he started
pestering the guard for details.

"Nope," said Mr. Vanburen.
"It's a surprise. You'll just have
to wait until we get there."

Shiv was so antsy he could
just about spit, but that would
only get him in trouble, like
the sign at the pool that said
No Expectations.

The craft room was empty when
they arrived, and Shiv groaned.

"Be patient," said Mr. Vanburen.
"Take a seat and wait nicely
for Ambrose to get here.
He's not far behind us."

Shiv flopped into a seat and
rested his chin on his hands,
one heel kicking the rungs
between the chair legs.

Soon Rosie came in carrying ... what?

It looked like a big storage tub
made of milky see-through plastic
with a clear lid latched on top,
full of colorful contents.

Shiv could feel ... something ...
shifting and sliding inside the tub,
hiding and revealing other stuff,
but he couldn't pin it down.

"What's in there?" he asked.

"That's for you to discover,"
Rosie said with a smile.

"Gimme it," Shiv said, reaching out.

Rosie placed the tub on the table
and leaned on it with both hands.
"First, let's go over the rules."

Shiv groaned again and sat back.
"I suck at rules," he said.

"I know you find them challenging,
so I'll walk you through them," Rosie said.
"Standard rules about not hurting yourself
or anyone else apply. The pellets stay inside
the container. There are sharp things, too,
so don't turn them into weapons or tools for
making mischief. Mr. Vanburen will be staying
with us today to supervise. Understood?"

Shiv fidgeted, but Rosie had him
hooked and he knew it. "Yeah."

"That's basically the Don't list,"
Rosie said. "The Do list is --
whatever you want that isn't
dangerous or destructive. I
encourage you to explore it.
Have you ever just played
with your superpowers?"

"Uh, not really," Shiv said.

He'd nicked himself by screwing
around with a butterfly knife once, and
three stitches later he'd learned to be
more careful with dangerous things,
and bought himself a trainer.

"All right then, what about
sensory bins?" Rosie said.
"Have you ever seen anything
like this before, or played with one?"

Seen, yes. Played with, no.

Nobody ever wanted to play with him,
and the teachers wouldn't trust him not
to throw things, because he threw things,
so Shiv had never gotten near it.

"They're for babies," he said
with an indifferent shrug.

"That's one use," Rosie said.
"They're good for any kind of
tactile stimulation, though, such as
physical therapy or trauma recovery.
Why don't you peek inside here?"
He popped the lid off the tub.

Shiv tried to keep his cool, but
he couldn't resist the temptation.

He leaned forward to look.

Some kind of brightly colored bits
filled the tub, hard enough that
he could just sense them but
soft enough to be unclear.

It was like staring into muddy water;
he could only catch glimpses of
whatever lay beneath.

"Oh!" he said suddenly.
"There are razor blades."

"That's one," Rosie said with
a proud smile. "Nineteen to go."

"What?" Shiv said, startled.

"I filled that bin with several bags
of craft pellets, and twenty different
sharp things for you to find," said Rosie.
"So be very careful if you use your hands."

Shiv reached into the tub with his talent
instead, sifting through the pellets
in search of harder things.

"There's a nail," he said.

"That's two," Rosie confirmed.

Shiv was intrigued,
but still a bit dubious.
"You put sharp things
in a toy tub?" he said.

"You like sharp things," said Rosie.
"The great art of life is sensation,
to feel that we exist, even in pain.

That's a quote from Lord Byron."

"Uh ... huh," Shiv said slowly,
poking around in the tub. He did
like the way that things felt.

"Don't fancy it up too much,"
Mr. Vanburen told Rosie,
then turned to Shiv.
"It's all in good fun."

"Uh, does the warden know
about this?" Shiv said.

"He knows that we are doing an exercise
in finesse that involves hard objects in
a sensory bin," said Rosie. "He does not
know exactly what's inside the bin, and I
think we'll all be happier if it stays that way."

Shiv smirked. "He won't hear it from me."

"Go on, then," said Rosie. "See
what else you can find in there."

"It's hard to feel anything,"
Shiv muttered, staring at the tub.

"You can tilt it or shake it, just
don't dump it out," Rosie said.
"It would take a long time for
you to clean up the mess."

"Oh god yes," Mr. Vanburen said,
chuckling, then explained, "Joey and I
used to love these things, but he had
a habit of throwing stuff around, so
we spent a lot of quality time with
a dust pan and a broom."

Shiv hated cleaning, and quickly
came to the conclusion that the fun
of tipping the tub over would not be
worth the cost of cleaning it up.

"Here, try this," the guard said,
offering him a wooden spoon
from the craft supplies.

"Thanks," Shiv said absently,
taking the spoon to stir around
the contents of the tub.

More items soon came to light.

He found a screw and a staple,
then a brass tack, and half a penny.

It felt wonderful to use his superpower,
groping through the pellets to find things by
the textures of their points and edges, feeling
the metal and ... other materials, too.

Then he turned up a beautiful arrowhead
knapped out of green bottle glass.

"Wow," Shiv whispered, staring at it.

"That's one of mine," Mr. Vanburen said.
"Ambrose asked folks to chip in stuff for you
to hunt. I got that at a powwow last year."

Shiv kept searching and found a quartz point,
a piece of broken pottery, a round ceramic blade,
and a funny plastic tube shaped like a star
that was hard enough to cut soft stuff.

"What the heck is this?" he said,
pointing at the star-tube-thing.

"It's a fruit cutter," said Rosie.
"One of the cooks loaned it to us.
They use those for making garnishes
and for cutting fruit to put in salads."

Oh yeah, Shiv had seen the bowls
come out with fruit in little stars or
toothpicked stacks of vegetables.

That didn't make him want to eat
the damn rabbit food, though.

It was getting difficult to find new things
without losing the old ones. He could
only keep so many items in mind at once,
and tilting the tub made some of them
slide under the surface again.

"Do you want to try sorting those?"
Rosie said. He set down a stack of
small bowls in different colors. "Start
by picking out what you've already found."

Shiv cast a wary eye at them. "I dunno ..."

"You have permission," Rosie reminded him.
"Part of the point is to use your powers so
that you know what they feel like and how
to control them. If you haven't explored
much before, now is a good time."

All Shiv really cared about was
keeping himself safe, which meant
learning to make weapons fast or
fidgeting with sharp things and then
cutting himself to let off the tension,
which he'd been told not to do.

"We used to make Christmas ornaments
and Easter egg shakers with this stuff,"
said Mr. Vanburen as he poked at
the pellets with a spoon of his own.

He was just a spout of useless information.

"I filled a snow globe with them once,"
said Rosie. "There's a snowflake made
of Austrian crystal in there somewhere,
too, that I got from a friend who makes
window decorations to cast rainbows.
The quartz point is my contribution."

While they were blathering,
Shiv discreetly started shifting
some of the sharp things
into the various bowls.

He put the screw and the nail
together, then the pot shard
and the ceramic cutter.

Then he found the scalpel blade.

"Holy shit," he said, lifting it
by the wickedly sharp edge.
It glittered inside its plastic case,
a sliver of black glass so thin
that it washed out to grey.

"A little something from
Dr. Bloch," said Rosie.

Shiv couldn't help imagining
what that fine edge would
feel like, sliding into his skin.

He left it in its case, though,
carefully putting it into a bowl
with the glass arrowhead.

Before long he'd found a flint flake,
the crystal snowflake that Rosie mentioned,
and a pyramid carved out of jasper.

"Why's it got numbers on it?"
he asked, peering at the pyramid.

"That's a d4 -- a die with four sides,"
said Mr. Vanburen. "It's another one
of the things I put in. I have a whole set
of gaming dice made out of gemstones."

"Did I get the filler right?" Rosie asked.
"I wanted something that you could
perceive, but not see right through,
if that makes sense to you."

"Yeah, I guess," Shiv said, frowning.
"It's like ... murky, shifting, kind of weird."

He liked the effect, actually, but
there were just so many things
in the tub. It was a bit dizzying.

"That's part of the fun," said Mr. Vanburen.
He had a hand in one corner of the tub,
just at the surface where there was nothing
sharp, playing with the colorful pellets.

"It's meant to be a bit of a challenge,"
Rosie said with a faint smile. "I figured
that something like glass would be too hard,
and rice or lentils would be too soft."

"That's what these remind me of!"
Shiv exclaimed. "The purple ones
are shaped like lentil beans."

Mr. Vanburen peered at the pellets
in his hand. "Yeah, so're the blacks."

The red, yellow, blue, green, and white ones
were all the same as each other but different
from the purple and black -- sort of like
tiny coin shapes instead of tapered.

Shiv almost had his head in the tub,
trying to get a closer look at the pellets.

"If you want to examine those, you may
take a few out and put them in a bowl,"
Ambrose said. "Just be careful not to spill."

"I thought the stuffing had to stay inside,"
Shiv said, narrowing his eyes.

"I meant, don't spread it all over the room,"
Ambrose said. "Telling you to keep it in
the bin was a simple way to say that, and
some folks don't do well with if-then rules."

Shiv mulled that over, comparing it
to some things that Dr. G had said.
"So 'pellets in the tub' is a soft rule
instead of a hard rule?" he guessed.

"Yes, exactly," Rosie said, grinning. "You've
been responsible with the materials thus far,
so I feel comfortable expanding a bit."

Shiv scooped out some of the filling and
took a closer look at the individual pellets.
They felt cool and smooth in his hand.

"There's a lot of these almost-clear ones,"
he observed, picking up a few. "They're
more rounded, like fish tank rocks."

"So they are," Rosie said with a nod.

The really clear kind were short round sticks,
Shiv realized. When he pressed them between
his fingertips, they left tiny dimples in the skin.
"Why are there different shapes?" he asked.

"Because I used several bags of pellets to fill up
a bin this big," said Rosie. "See, the colored ones
cost more, because those are the actual bin beans.
The whitish kind are for stuffing toys. The clear are
for shakers, because if you put those sharp edges
inside a bean bag, they'd wear through the cloth."

"Huh," Shiv said, poking at all the pellets.
He hadn't known there were kinds.
Then he went back to the tub.

As Shiv searched, he turned up a staple,
a broken paperclip, a brass safety pin,
a cookie cutter, and a tiny camping fork.

"Where the fuck is the last thing?"
he muttered as he shoveled
through the plastic pellets.

"Do you want a hint?" Rosie said.

"No," Shiv said. "I'll get it."

He tried running his talent through
the tub but the pellets got in the way,
making him lose track of where he was.

Then he spied something
out of place and grabbed it.

"A Lego brick?" he laughed.

"Those things are the devil,"
said Mr. Vanburen. "You step
on one in the middle of the night,
and you'll yell the house down.
Ask me how I know this."

Shiv shook his head.
"Your baby brother is a dick."

"Yeah, but I love him anyhow,"
said Mr. Vanburen. "He's family."

"Pick one thing that's easy
to find and put it back in the bin,"
Rosie suggested. "Then see how
long you take to relocate it."

Shiv returned the nail to the tub.
Rosie gave the container a good shake
to move the pellets around inside.

It took Shiv two minutes searching
with the spoon, but only a few seconds
when he used his superpower.

"You're getting the hang of it,"
Rosie said, and Shiv grinned back.

"If we dump 'em all back in, can you
pick out only certain things?"
asked Mr. Vanburen.

"What, like just the flat blades or
the round sharp points?" Shiv said,
cocking his head with curiosity.
"Or did you mean like the brass
and then the copper things?"

"Either way," said Mr. Vanburen.
"Just do something that makes you
sort out different kinds of stuff. I know
you can do it, I've seen you."

He'd seen Shiv grab a table's worth
of silverware to make a machete, is what,
but that was a memory that neither
of them needed dug up again.

So they pushed everything under
the pellets and Shiv tried his hand
at finding them a few at a time,
based on shape or material.

It worked pretty well, although he was
starting to get tired, and his superpower
gave him a stretchy ache behind his eyes.
Shiv didn't care. It was such a relief just
to be able to use it freely, he didn't mind
a little discomfort along the way.

Besides, Rosie was right, he was
learning all kinds of things like this.

All of the materials felt different, and
Shiv had known that before, but he had
never thrown a bunch of things together
with the intent of comparing them.

It made more of a difference
than he would have expected.

"Well done," Rosie said when Shiv
flicked the last item into the waiting bowl.

"Can you play hide-and-seek?"
asked Mr. Vanburen. "Put one thing
in the bin, then you try to keep it
away from me while I try to find it."

Shiv did that sort of thing all the time,
but the guard didn't need to know that.

"Sure," said Shiv. He picked up
the rotary blade, letting it spin
lazily in midair. "How about
this one? It's easy to see."

"Works for me," said Mr. Vanburen.

So Shiv put the ceramic circle
into the bin and stirred the pellets
with his wooden spoon. "Go."

Mr. Vanburen dug around with
his own spoon, muttered under
his breath, and eventually gave up.

"You didn't dissolve that thing,
did you now?" he asked.

"No," Shiv said. He used
his spoon to scoop the pellets
away, showing how he had
pressed the flat circular blade
against the wall of the tub.

"You little stinker!" said Mr. Vanburen.

"No name calling," Rosie said mildly.
"Why don't you play another round,
and this time Mr. Vanburen gets
to pick what goes in the bin."

The guard chose the jasper pyramid,
which was too pointy for the same trick
to work a second time around.

Now Shiv had to work at it,
keeping the thing in motion as
Mr. Vanburen swept his spoon
through the plastic pellets.

Shiv could, of course, make things
move a lot faster than he was, but
he couldn't do that and still be sure
of keeping everything in the tub.

Mr. Vanburen did manage to catch
a few glimpses of the pyramid in passing,
but he never pinned it down, and
eventually he gave up on it.

Shiv smirked at him.

This was more fun than
he'd had in ages, in spite of
the growing ache between his eyes,
and he didn't want to quit.

While Shiv was trying to think
of a way to sucker Mr. Vanburen
into another round, Rosie said,
"Can you control two things at once?
Not just moving them together, but
separately or in opposite directions?"

"I dunno," Shiv said. "Maybe if
they're not too different -- I mean,
I need to be able to tell them apart,
but if they're not alike at all then
I'd probably drop one. I'm not
really used to this fancy work."

"Pick your pieces," Rosie said with
a wave at the bowls of sharp stuff.

Shiv gazed at them for a moment
through half-closed eyes, focusing
on how they felt in his head, before
he chose the flint flake and
the ceramic rotary blade.

It was easy enough to get
either of them moving in a circle
inside the tub, and not much harder
to move both of them on opposite sides
of the same looping path.

When he tried to do two separate circles,
though, the pattern quickly fell apart.

"Damn it," Shiv muttered,
his eyebrows pinching together
as he leaned over the tub.
"I almost had it then."

"Try again," Rosie said. "You can't
expect to get everything perfect
on the first attempt."

It was hard, because it wasn't like
any of the things Shiv normally did.

He could yank whole handfuls of stuff
into his grasp to make weapons, or
fling blades at several opponents
simultaneously, or block things
other people threw at him.

The difference, Shiv realized, was
that he was used to orienting things
in relation to himself, not each other.

Getting the two blades to move at
the same time but not in the same way
required a lot more concentration.

Eventually, though, Shiv had them
looping around the center of the tub
in two slightly different circles, with
the gray flint and white ceramic
cutting through the colored pellets.

"Da da ... da da ..." said Mr. Vanburen,
slowly picking up the pace.

Shiv realized he was singing the Jaws song.

Rose laughed. "Well played," he said,
"and Shiv, you're making excellent progress
with your control. I'm impressed. Do you
want to try adding more items now?"

"Maybe," Shiv said, not wanting
to seem like he couldn't handle it,
but not sure of his ability either.

He lifted the two blades out of the tub,
and the white ceramic caught the light,
casting the reflection in his face.

Shiv winced away from it, but it still
left painful afterimages in his vision
that made it difficult to focus on
the small objects in the bowls.

"How about if you used a handful
of similar things, like the same metal,
and moved them in the same direction?"
said Mr. Vanburen, who was learning
as much about Shiv's superpower
as Shiv was discovering himself.

"Yeah, that should work," Shiv said.

He placed the flint and ceramic in a bowl,
then moved the steel things into the tub.

It took a little practice, but then
he figured out the trick of moving them
back and forth in a row. Next he sent
the items toward the corners of the tub
and then back into the center.

"Wow," he said. "I actually did it."

"You sure did," Rosie said.
"That's fantastic, Shiv. I can
see how hard you worked."

What. The fuck.

Nobody ever said things like that
to Shiv. It made him nervous.

He started lifting things out of the tub,
and got the screw and the razor blade
back into their bowl, but he dropped
the nail, its smooth shaft slipping
out of his tired grasp.

Quickly Shiv picked it up with
his hand and put it in the bowl,
making sure to get a better grip
on the staple with his superpower
before he put that away too. He
hoped nobody had noticed it.

"Time," Mr. Vanburen said,
a note of disappointment in
his voice. "Best clean up now,
so we don't run over."

"Just pour all the sharp things
into the sensory bin," said Rosie.
"I'll take it back to my office. If you
want to try this again some time, Shiv,
I'll include a different set of items."

"Okay," Shiv said with a sigh of relief.
He loved the game, but he'd been at it
long enough his head was killing him.

New treasures would be awesome,
though. He really wanted to play
with the tub some other day.
He loved all the textures.

That much of the future,
Shiv thought he could grasp.

* * *

Notes:

"The great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain."
-- Lord Byron

Anxiety is a generalized fear of the world as a hazardous place. It can become a problem when it is greatly out of step with the world and/or interferes with everyday life. Trust is created and destroyed in the cycle of a hysteresis effect like this. Correct trust happens when system reliability is high; correct distrust happens when system reliability is low. Shiv grew up in hostile environments, so he learned distrust as a survival skill, which was accurate for years. Now that his situation is improving, however, he is undertrusting -- which limits his ability to take advantage of new opportunities. Much of Shiv's anxiety stems from the fact that his formerly consistent ability to predict people's actions is no longer accurate, and for an abuse survivor being unable to predict people is utterly nerve-wracking. There are ways to cope with anxiety.

A speed bag is a type of punching bag designed to practice fast, accurate strikes. This makes it good for working off anxiety or excess energy, whereas a heavy bag is better suited to dealing with anger. Read about how to hit one. I also found a totally awesome video that explains exactly how and why to use the techniques of speed bag practice.

This is the prison swimming pool. The sign actually says "No Expectorating."

Among the later ideas that Ambrose and Graham think of is making something like a rice bin with plastic pellets and a handful of metal or glass objects for contrast to search and find. It's a way for Shiv to explore what things feel like, what he can pick up and move easily, how to find one specific thing amidst a jumble, and so forth. Educational, but also fun and playful. Bins can be filled with many things including polyfill pellets or nurdles.

Sensory play is important for developing ordinary and super skills. It's especially vital for those with strong tactile sense. Sensory play also helps treat traumatic stress.

Sensory bins are designed for play. You can buy bin beans like this multicolor batch to fill them. Cherry Plastics makes lenticular beans. These transparent beans are meant for making bean-bag toys. Although advertised as bean-bag filler, sharp clear beans will cut through fabric. Here is a comparison of different shapes.

A sensory bin can serve multiple purposes. Themed bins like Shiv's are fun. Here is one with a Valentine's Day theme.

When Shiv first started learning how to use a butterfly knife, he did what every novice does if they begin with a sharp blade: he cut himself. For once in his life, he then did the smart thing and bought a trainer. Once he learned how to handle the blunt version with basic skills, he used a single-edged butterfly. Later on he learned to do tricks. At his current skill level, he uses a double-edged butterfly for the simple reason that if someone else takes it away from him, they're more threat to themselves than to him. It's extremely difficult to control a double butterfly because there is no "safe" back side of the knife that you can allow to hit your hand. You have to control it entirely with timing -- or in Shiv's case, augmented with superpowers, but he does have the finesse to use that knife without cheating.

It's important to understand the difference between hard vs. soft rules. Hard rules always apply and are firm as phrased. Soft rules may apply at some times but not others and/or have some wiggle room.

Find It games involve looking for small objects in a mass of filler. You can make your own version like this jar of toys. Consider the size, as bigger items are easier to find than littler ones.

Shiv's sensory bin includes a wide variety of items. Sharp metal: brass tack, brass safety pin, screw, nail, razor blade, half a penny, copper cookie cutter, aluminum camping fork, staple, broken paperclip. Sharp glass, stone, and plastic: glass arrowhead, flint flake, potshard, ceramic rotary blade, obsidian scalpel blade, jasper d4, quartz crystal, Austrian crystal prism, Lego brick, plastic fruit cutter.

Glass arrowheads may be made from bottles. See Part 1 and Part 2 about knapping glass.

Pellet crafts include shaker eggs, I-Spy ornaments, and snow globes.

Stacking bowls such as this rainbow set are useful for cooking or sorting craft supplies as well as playing.

Flint can also be knapped into excellent survival blades.

Camping knives may come with eating utensils. You can also get a set of camping silverware clipped together.

Praise has its pros and cons, but ultimately children need praise. Here are some tips on praising children and giving effective praise. Typically the advice is to praise actions rather than traits, but abuse survivors may need to hear that they are good and other trait-based praise after being condemned by their abuser(s).

Many people feel uncomfortable with praise, for various reasons. Abuse survivors in particular may shy away from praise but need it desperately. There are ways to respond if praise makes you uncomfortable, and how to praise people who dislike it. If you push too hard you can make matters worse, but it's not great to let people keep putting themselves down, so aim for a balance.

Legos are notorious for being painful to step on. Because science, that's why.

Sensory overload can be a cause or effect of migraines. Much of modern life can contribute to headaches too. Shiv tends to get headaches from using his eyes too much or thinking too hard; the light sensitivity is minor until he's already having other problems and then it gets worse. Understand migraine triggers and prevention techniques. Work on reducing sensory overload.

Migraines are brutal headaches that can come with a host of other symptoms. Bright light often makes this worse. Migraines also progress through phases. They are similar to overstrain headaches that can come from using superpowers or psychic abilities. Understand how to recognize migraine symptoms and treat them.

Among the drawbacks of psychic development are what's called reaction headaches or overstrain headaches. In extreme cases, it can cause nosebleeds. When practicing, stop when you start to get a headache, don't wait for it to get worse. Shiv does not yet know this important safety tip, because he habitually hides problems, because in his experience showing weakness gets him beat up, not helped. So now he's bonking into a lot of problems he could avoid if he would talk more to the currently helpful people around him.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, entertainment, family skills, fantasy, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing
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