A thing of value

One mid-December I attended a ''values clarification workshop.'' A large group of us - parents, teachers, managerial professionals - gathered in a convention room at one of our city's glittering new motel ''complexes.'' Tough maroon carpet guarded the floor; landscape paintings (price tags attached) did a reasonably comprehensive job of disguising the cinder-block walls, and the cinder-block walls did a thoroughly comprehensive job of shutting out that lyric slant of early winter sunlight.

The fees for the workshop were stiff, but many of us novitiates were being staked by our schools or businesses, and I think we were, for the most part, full of hope. When a young woman dressed like a stewardess on a deluxe flight to Hawaii asked us in stereophonic sound to take our seats, we obeyed.

The workshop Leader appeared in our midst like a rock star, his yellow and red flowered shirt open at the chest, a medallion gleaming on his furry chest, his beard freshly shampooed. He was about 50, wore flared, hip-hugging cords. He held the bulb-ended microphone close to his chin, and his deep resonant voice flowed out of strategically placed speakers and poured into Us of the Unclear Values.

For three hours, under his facilitation, we clarified our values. Time has mercifully lowered a portcullis between today and all the small-group activities of that winter afternoon, but I do remember two episodes in which I got some values clear.

The first was a small-group session. Five of us, sitting knee to knee like a great head of human broccoli, were each given 5-by-7-inch cards. Across the top of each card, in bold flair, one of the assistant facilitators had begun a sentence: ''For me, Christmas is . . . .'' Our assignment was to complete the sentence, each member on his own, then ''share'' the results with fellow clarifiers by pinning this small placard to the breast.

I had no difficulty. Like the breeze that touched Wordsworth's cheek and inspired him with the opening of his great ''Prelude,'' the hum of fluorescent light, the microphone, and the crowd noise infused me with my completion: ''For me, Christmas is impossible to enjoy.''

Never have I become a public figure so fast. My small group almost instantly channeled its collective values into efforts to facilitate a conversion experience.

A young man in razor-cut, high-heeled loafers and a parabolically designed three-piece suit leaned toward me and touched my knee lovingly. He had learned that eye contact is all. He pinned me with eye contact. ''We understand,'' he whispered.

Nod nod nod nod nod. Faces closed in on me like warm sticky leaves.

A middle-aged woman with engineered hair leaned close and suggested that if I could only share my feelings with my new friends, perhaps we could work out my problem.

A middle-aged man, eyes welling into a pool of sympathy that was dangerously close to overflowing, said, ''Yes, if you could somehow find the words to tell us why . . . ?''

Like Prufrock's butterfly pinned and wriggling on the wall, I tried to get unstuck. I tried to tell my group of facilitating lay psychotherapists that Christmas had gotten out of whack. Too much money. Too much charging around to contrived parties. Too much distance between the simplicity of manger and shepherd and the complexity of year-long BankAmericard payments and cartoon specials about the further adventures of Rudolph. The usual stuff - but deeply felt, nonetheless. Nod nod nod nod nod.

The values of the Clarification Guru himself, who held his microphone like a personal power source, flowed into our group and tried to help clarify my Christmas values. I sensed that behind his beard, behind the smile, buried deep in his handsome blue eyes, there was a glint of distrust, even anger.

Mercifully, as happens in every workshop I've ever been to, the small-group activities are so brief that nothing substantial can develop. Our Christmas party broke up, melted into tension-relieving activities such as gentle karate chops to one's partner's shoulder blades or making cartoon drawings to express one's feelings about his family.

Late in the afternoon the Facilitator whispered into his microphone that we were all to find someone we had never met, draw up chairs face to face so that our knees were touching, and spend two minutes each revealing our deepest selves to our new friend.

Somehow I didn't find a partner very quickly. In fact, after the shuffle, there were only two of us left. One of the stewardesses arranged a knee-to-knee session between me and a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman of late middle age.

I looked at her and saw misery in her eyes. I think she saw the same in mine. She laughed a little ruefully. I laughed back.

''Well . . . ,'' I said.

''You know . . . ,'' she said.

We were silent.

''This whole thing makes me miserable,'' she said.

''Me too,'' I said. ''Let's get out of here.''

We got up and left, striding out through a minefield of freezing stares from assistant facilitators and The Facilitator. As we escaped into the parking lot, we talked of our children and her first grandchild; of how we struggled to find the right way to control the television set; of our shared loathing of cartoon specials. We never looked at each other's name tags.

The winter afternoon was cold and clear. ''Beautiful,'' she observed, as we wrapped ourselves in the lyric blue of the December twilight. The evening star was bold and clear.

I held the door of her car for her. She smiled. ''Merry Christmas,'' she said.

''And Merry Christmas to you, too.'' I said.

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