Close to home

This entry is a response to this workshop prompt.

It took some time to get used to hearing other people’s hard stories; but in my MSW program, I learned to listen to them in such a way that I could be compassionate without falling apart myself.  I had the opportunity to hold very difficult stories of domestic violence, of discrimination, of abandonment, of breaks with reality—and although I could empathize, I could also hold myself at a distance.  But when a parent of a person with developmental disabilities shared her story with my Adolescent Mental Health class, I couldn’t keep the distance.  At the end of the class, I looked around for the exit before bursting into tears.

***

A stranger could tell from ten yards that my older brother had disabilities.  He didn’t use a wheel chair, but he had a funny gait; he always walked on tip-toes (a characteristic that I have since learned is sometimes called ‘equinus gait’ and can be a potential early sign of autism, though he was not formally diagnosed as such).  As a child, I was fairly unfazed by his differences—he was just my brother, my first friend.  It wasn’t until I was in school that I was aware he was different from me in any significant way, and it may be a coincidence of my constitution that my response to that new knowledge was to become a bulldog of a sister, ready to sink my teeth into anyone who crossed us.

***

In graduate school, I focused on severe mental illness, adolescents, school-based interventions, and family dynamics.  I had no expectation of working in the developmental disability field, although I did present to a first-year class on ableism and my experience as a family member of a person with disabilities.  And because MSW programs pretty universally require their students to do much personal reflection, I did do a fair amount of thinking on my own family’s story.  The two years I spent becoming a social worker were immensely important to me:  I learned a lot about us.

***

We were riding in the red station wagon, all of us, with my brother’s clothes packed in a suit case in the way back.  I was eleven and furious because he wasn’t going to be living with us anymore; he was moving into a group home.

He could be a handful, for sure. Sometimes we all got frustrated.  But I didn’t understand.  In retrospect, I understand that his disabilities were one part of a much larger picture that included poverty, trauma, and a number of other stressors that impacted my parents’ wellbeing and ability to take care of us.  A social worker had convinced them that this was in my brother’s best interest.

I sat in the middle seat between my brother and sister and could see my father’s face in the rear-view mirror.  “Why are you sending him away?” I asked them.  Beneath that question was, “Don’t you love him?”  Years later, when I was twenty-two, I’d ask the question of my father in reverse:  “Why are you taking him out of his safe and secure place?” with “Don’t you care about him?” undertones.

***

Every day, I talk to parents of people with developmental disabilities.  They are, most often, totally exhausted and fearful about the fate of their child.  They have spent decades being advocates, trying to figure out what the right questions are to ask, praying that their kid eventually makes it onto the Medicaid waiver so he’ll have the golden ticket that gets him the services that he needs, worrying about what will happen to their adult child when they die.  My job is to maintain a list of applicants who are interested in residential options that my agency provides, to develop relationships with families, and in the best-case scenarios for those families, to match applicants with homes in which they will thrive.  I really love the agency that I work for, and I love the work that I’m doing.  But it is heartbreaking sometimes to hear all these stories and often hard to keep my distance from them.

***

When I was home from college once, I sat on the stoop of the house where I grew up, staring across at a yellow house I admired and imagining that one day I might buy that house and have a family.  I considered my brother’s place in my life and realized that I would probably take care of him eventually, and I looked forward to him being an uncle to my children.  I looked forward to loving him into adulthood with me, maybe making up for the hard years of my adolescence when sometimes I was too angry to love him properly.

Just a few years after that, his heart started to fail.  We buried him in a cemetery where we rode bikes as children.  I suppose that my life is simpler than it might have been, but I deeply miss the ways he would have complicated it.  I still mourn the loss of a chance to love him better.  That loss follows me around, haunts my work, brings me closer to the rawness of these other families’ experiences.

Intuitive Construction (or how I came to live in a brightly-painted bird’s-nest)

The workshop prompt:  Describe your creative process in terms of the construction of a building / structure. 

I’m not what you’d call an architect.  I don’t use the protractor, level, or tape measure.  I eyeball it.  I drag one piece of wood up against another, squint a bit, call it good or not.  I rely on my gut and love a piece of warped wood for the floor if it warms the space.  I have one organic impression or another—a blooming bee balm flower, a head of garlic, a bird’s nest, a summer storm, but I never draw a blue print.  I just tilt my head and build from the inside out.

When the building is complete, I survey it—I tidy here, I push back a thing there, I switch this part for that part.  The finished product—somewhat a misnomer, truth be told, because I’m always rearranging the furniture or art objects—is not without reflection and evaluation, but the specifics aren’t often drawn and measured before I begin; I don’t pile bricks and lumber neatly or even always ensure that I have roughly enough material to finish a project.

There are certainly drawbacks to not having a plan—the door doesn’t shut quite right, the hallway is always a little drafty; sometimes I live without a roof in spots.  But I have found that the intuitive unwinding of the structures that I create from a pile of raw material I’ve collected over years often results in something rather elegant, something coherent beyond my own expectations.  This window echoes an interior passage way; the house itself spirals around its staircase and on up towards the sky.  Sometimes it’s startling: I find familiar jewels crammed into the gaps inherent to a process that rejects measurements.  It is a strange way to build a home, but I love discovering those unintentional stripes of mottled light.

Garden Dreams

My fantasy garden is a community affair. People will show up with shovels and ideas and opinions and agenda and questions and insecurities and ego.  It will be messy—gardens are messy—but it will be a process of struggling and listening, digging in.  Some people will stake out a corner of their own and plant their neat rows of herbs.  That’s okay.  Some others will decide that it sounds more fun to share a swath of dirt, talking over the humus, deciding what to interplant.  That’s okay too.  And some people might not know what they’re doing, and they’ll plant the potatoes next to the garlic, and it won’t work out too well this year, but that’s okay, really it is.  What will happen is abundance-despite.  There will be more tomatoes than any family could possibly eat in a season, and the guy with the neat rows of herbs will have sage and basil to spare.  In the middle of the garden, there will be a basket with a sign on it that says “SHARE.” And we will.

Someday we’ll get it right–it’ll be all organic and permaculture, all seeds saved, no GMO.  We’ll feed ourselves and the hungry. There won’t be locks on the gates, and we’ll all ride our bicycles there.

But first we’ll just give dreaming together a shot.

 

 

This was another Grow Write Guild post, though I’m late to the game this time around.  This time the topic is Dream Garden.

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My First Plant (or How Everything Comes Back Over to Social Work)

My first plant was a lima bean planted in a paper cup in third grade.  I don’t remember the specifics of the assignment except that I was a disorganized eight-year-old in a disorganized family.  I forgot to tell my mom that I needed to soak the bean before planting it, but it didn’t much matter because my bean went into the dark closet, where I learned seeds were loathe to grow anyway.  So the plants on the sunny sill popped up, first peeking little green arches and then heart leaves.  The seeds in the closet stayed tucked beneath the dirt and dark.

In retrospect, while I see that there is value to control groups and third grade scientific inquiry, I feel defensive of my spacey and disorganized eight year-old self and her failure of a seedling. I sort of wish the teacher had taken on the burden of the control group, so that little girl (and her control cohort!) could have had that experience of her very own wonder and hope.

How could this be anything but a parable about privilege and risk and resilience?  I can’t help but draw the parallel between this little elementary experiment and the reality of institutional discrimination and disparity.  Some seeds are planted in good soil, get enough water, and sit on a sunny sill.  Some go into the closet–maybe soaked a bit the night before, maybe brought out for half the daylight.  The objective of the lesson was, of course, to point out that plants need a combination of circumstances to thrive.

That little girl was not herself a bean in the dark.  She was a bean in the partial shade, and sometimes the ground was a little too cool. But the soil was fertile and a slice of sun hit her just right, and she happened to be a particularly sprouty type, it turned out.

It’s interesting to do social work, with its strengths-based ethos, in the school setting.  I grew enough into the teacher role that I absorbed the language of “at risk,” but it wasn’t until my MSW program that I was able to fully contextualize that label.  A kid isn’t “at risk” because of her personality or bad parents or low ambitions or propensity to misbehavior but because of systemic realities that can amount to being sown in rocky soil or being put inside a closet with no light.  What schools often seem to miss out on is the other side of risk, which is resilience.  And when we label “at risk” kids without also digging around for the ways that they are sprouty and programmed to thrive, when we don’t assess for and emphasize and GROW those things, we often undermine the ability of children to soak up what is fertile or find their patch of sun.

This year, I am tending my first real class of seedlings.  When I chose the cucumber sprout who would continue on into the next round, I laid the rejected snipped stem aside, sadly, to a spot in the basin that had collected a little water.  A few days later, I noticed that she was reaching up toward the light and had rooted in the margins.  I couldn’t help myself–I planted her and put her in the window.

I’m participating in the Grow Write Guild with Gayla Trail and friends.  The subject at hand is “my first plant.

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Taking my time–easier said than done!

Ah. Remember that taking my time intention? Yeah, about that. It feels like I own almost none of my own time. Lately, I’ve been living in this electric fog of anxiety and overwhelm. I abandoned my daily mandala meditation. I wake up in the middle of the night with low-grade  anxiety or sweaty moments of panic.  I swear that I am a little cognitively impaired for it all (I’m not even being flippant). I teach coping skills to teenagers but am not all that sure that I am even using them (that is hyperbole, probably. I think?).  I’m just trying not to fall off the edge of everything.

Automatic thought roll call: I can’t do this? (Here!) I should be doing more? (Yo, teach!) This is too much? (Hey!)  I am going to fail? (Present and accounted for!) It’s tough because the minimal requirements of finishing my degree are real and substantial. But there’s a lot of core-belief and low self-esteem action at work there, and when I’m not in full-blown emotion mind (can you tell that I think a lot about cognitive & dialectical behavior therapy?) I’m really trying to figure out how to give myself a break.

green thingsIt hasn’t been a total wash. Over the weekend, I connected with a couple of friends to share seeds and grilled cheese sandwiches with. It was good for the soul to take my time for that. It reminded me that I really miss my community and that, in spite of my introversion, I really love to gather a community.  I love to be together and do stuff. And on top of it all, it was this wonderful chance to attend to and share my garden dreams. With a huge pile of work to do, the two hours had seemed almost impossible to take–but I’m glad I did. I am exhausted, but it was a boost of delightful anticipation and a nice distraction from the grind that demands so much of my focus.

And the seeds I planted are coming up.  Ah, hope.  I look at them every day. It does help.

Oh, hey February.

ImageMy schedule is really a killer.  I don’t want to complain, and I know that it’s worth the temporary inconvenience (I’ll ultimately have two professional licenses instead of one), but since my semester has gotten underway, I have so little time for anything besides school.  Since February began, I’ve sat down to draw one mandala mindfully. I’ve drawn others, but those have been during class rather than as a meditative activity. But I’m trying to remain non-judgmental. It’s not a failure; it’s just not what I’d like.

I sleep well maybe three out of seven week nights. I am wracked with anxiety about the end of my program and my job search. It has been a real challenge to quiet my brain and be in this moment right now. My partner understands this crazy, points out the ways that it is crazy, and offers to be sane and hopeful for me when I struggle.  I am uncomfortable being the one who needs that kind of solid groundedness, but I’ll take it.

Mindfulness and the Eucharist

I was paging through Peace is Every Step  to see if I could find a good reading for mindfulness with my program kids today, and I came across this, which is not perfect to share with them but which I love.

The practice of the Eucharist is a practice of awareness. When Jesus broke the bread and shared it with his disciples, he said, “Eat this. This is my flesh.” He knew that if his disciples would eat one piece of bread with mindfulness, they would have real life. In their daily lives, they may have eaten their bread in forgetfulness, so the bread was not bread at all; it was a ghost. In our daily lives, we may see the people around us, but if we lack mindfulness, they are just phantoms, not real people, and we ourselves are also ghosts. Practicing mindfulness enables us to become a real person. When we are a real person, we see real people around us, and life is present in all its richness. The practice of eating bread, a tangerine, or a cookie is the same.

When we breathe, when we are mindful, when we look deeply at our food, life becomes real at that very moment. To me, the rite of the Eucharist is a wonderful practice of mindfulness. In a drastic way, Jesus tried to wake up his disciples.

from Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

January Goals

Ha! It is preposterous: I meant to talk about goals sooner than almost-the-end of the month. But you know, I’m busy and I’m practicing a nonjudgmental stance.  I’m doing the best that I can with the skills that I possess.  These are the intentions I’ve been holding this month:

  1. Use at least one new recipe a week.  So far, so good! I was thinking that I wanted to do more cooking out of my cookbooks, but there have definitely been some pinterest recipes in the mix.  So far we’ve done this spaghetti squash recipe, the two delicious soups I mentioned last time, a “tamale pie” from this cookbook that came out weird but was delicious, and these turkey burgers.  For a potluck, I made this bangin’ flannel hash. My goal was not to photograph my food, so I did not do so, but our meals were awesome.
  2. Only buy groceries once a week as needed for recipes.  This represents a shift in the way I’ve tended to buy groceries, which has been somewhat haphazardly or on-the-spot according to my mood.  I believe that it will save us money in the long-run, but we’ll see how that goes when we add it all up.  In any case, it feels very sane and orderly.
  3. Refrain from eating out.  I’ve got to say, I’ve done pretty well with this. We did get biscuits for breakfast one crazy Saturday morning, but other than that, we’ve eaten at home for the most part.  Next month I might see if I can refrain from buying lattes also. Having delicious leftovers at home has made it a lot easier to stay home and eat.  (Also fun: “leftovers buffet” with a friend.  A thrifty pal was happy to support my desire not to buy dinner at a restaurant meeting we were both attending, so she brought over some of her leftovers and helped us have a leftovers party.  And then we bought beer at that meeting–I felt like that was an okay compromise.)
  4. Walk or bike to campus unless it’s raining.  I have only had two opportunities to do this because classes just started back last week (and I’m only on campus twice a week).  I am one for two on this one and will probably not make it tomorrow either because of my schedule.  However, I think it’s a worthy goal and I will continue to aspire to it.
  5. Articulate my limits–say “no” to some things.  I have done this!  I backed off from a commitment I’d made in December to tutor a new student. I felt able to do that because I knew I wasn’t leaving the kid high and dry because I could recommend another tutor. I would like to get better at saying “no” even in the absence of a rescue plan.  I am genuinely horrible at it could be more effective at practicing self care by limiting my obligations.

I like the idea of having time-limited monthly goals to “try on” and see if I’d like to incorporate for a longer amount of time.  I think that I will definitely keep these and probably add one about my sugar intake for February.  I’ve also been keeping up with my 365 project of mandala-doodling, with an almost-perfect record (not that perfection is the point).  It’s been a good month!  I would like to remember these things when I’m feeling overwhelmed with my last semester of grad school (which, to be fair to myself, is legitimately overwhelming for lots of reasons).

ImageOn the non-grad-school reading list is You Grow Girl by the same fabulous woman (Gayla Trail) who wrote Grow Great Grub, which I talked about last time.  I am really stoked to start my garden.  Last week–four days before we had a wintry mix–it was seventy degrees outside, so I spent some time mulching and generally tidying up my space.  I’ve sent out an email to my fellow community gardeners to see if anyone wants to go in on a seeds order, but I haven’t heard from anyone yet.  It’s not too long before I need to start up some seedlings, so I hope that someone bites soon before I buy way too many seeds just to get a variety.

And today I received Peace is Every Step in the mail, which is honestly not strictly “non-grad-school” reading (since I bought it to share pieces of it with a group I’m running this semester), but I figure a little mindfulness reading, no matter how requisite, is good for the soul.  That is much of what I’m trying to make this blog about, anyway!

I feel good and whole.

What I’ve Been Doing (Right)

Like many people, I struggle with a very critical inner voice, one who never hesitates to point out all of the ways I fail to meet my own goals.  I meant to take some time off of my internship this week in order to relax and give myself a little time to do some pre-job search tasks before jumping back into the fray–but I ended up going each day.  I had my reasons, and I think I made the right decision (and in any case, it was the decision I made), but my inner critic made sure to remind me that I really fall short at work-life balance.

While I appreciate that I have this voice–she is wise in many ways and reminds me of my values–I am also trying to work on cultivating a more moderate, kind, nonjudgmental voice.  That voice will validate some of my impulses–like, it’s okay that I chose to take advantage of learning opportunities that presented  themselves last week. This is the time that I have for that. It is possible to both work hard and take care of myself.  That voice will also point out ways that I actually was successful at self-care as well.

And I did take my time for self care!  Let me tell you about it.

garlandI drew many mandalas (at least once a day!) as a mindfulness practice.  I have some work to do to make this activity more mindful (doing it away from my computer, for example), but I’ve really loved losing myself in the short moments of drawing these little designs.  When I can, I will write a post that walks you through the process that I take, inasmuch as there is a prescribable process.  Since I’ve been able to take the time to make a lot of these, I fashioned them into a garland to send to my sister for her birthday.  She loves mandalas and colors them a lot as part of her own self-care routine, and I have enjoyed thinking about her while doing these.  I’ve learned a lot about gentleness from her.

I saved one of the mandalas to send to a student of mine who I’ve been emailing with recently. She’s a special kid (but not a kid anymore) and I’m glad to be connected to her again. I wrote her a little note and included a star-shaped blossom. Being back in touch with this young person has given me the opportunity to re-articulate to myself some pretty important beliefs.  Chief among them is that we deserve, fundamentally, to be fulfilled, to find joy, to live well.

I’ve also been cooking.  I made this great Thai chicken soup (essentially Tom Kha, but without the lemongrass). I needed to make chicken broth because I finally ran out of the broth I made months ago and froze, so it made sense to make a chicken soup with the meat left over. I was pretty pleased with my version of “Thai seasoning,” which this recipe called for but which I could neither find nor really wanted to purchase.  It included fish sauce, sesame oil, cayenne, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, red pepper flakes, and lemon pepper, along with the lime juice.  I think it was a good deal spicier than the recipe called for, which meant that it was exactly how I like it.  And now we have a ton of leftovers between this and the black-eyed peas and collards soup I made for New Year’s Day.

okraAnd I’ve been reading.  I haven’t been reading what I’d planned to read (The Gift of Therapy by Irvin Yalom or Swamplandia by Karen Russell), but I’ve really enjoyed two books on gardening.  The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour has a wealth of information about gardening in general and especially interplanting and succession planting.  Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces by Gayla Trail is incredibly accessible and inspiring and has a ton of practical advice for people like me who have limited space for food gardening.  I am really excited to start seedlings and watch life happen.  Between dreaming about my garden and cooking more mindfully, I’ve started to think about what it might mean to eat with an abiding respect and promotion for full and exuberant life.

So while I have continued to work hard, I have been taking my time and committing to the slower, deeper life I want to have.  And in all of that was quiet presence with my partner and snuggling with my pets.  Take that, inner critic.

How have you been taking your time lately? What do you do to take care of yourself?

Taking My Time

I have always loved New Year’s.  I remember my father grumbling once about this “pagan, arbitrary celebration” and interjecting my appreciation for celebration of an end of one thing and a beginning of another, for a sense of accomplishment and promise.  Sometimes the accomplishment is just surviving; sometimes the promise is that the next year won’t be quite as miserable.  Be that as it may, I like the ritual.

I am, however, a New Year’s Resolution agnostic. Oh, I’ve made them. I’ve been that person at your gym.  I lasted ’til April or so, then fell off the wagon, then tried again in August.  I love the idea of setting an intention, of making promises to myself–but I am in the skeptical camp on account of my own failure at the gym.  Change–real change–takes a fair amount of studied analysis of what’s working and what’s not working, what motivations are competing, and so forth.  I wish to lose weight, save money, and simplify my schedule; but those goals, thus articulated, are not that useful. I could make them smarter–and I will–but that’s not what I’d like New Year’s to be about.

I was spending time with a cluster of sweet girl friends today, and one of them brought up this other way of thinking about New Year’s resolutions, wherein one considers the whole of her life and chooses a theme word or phrase.  While the social worker in me wants my goals to be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound, the poet in me–arguably the dominant voice, let’s be honest–loves the notion of the theme that permeates everything, the guiding metaphor.  So that is what I’m going to do.

When I start thinking about my obstacles to change for losing weight, saving money, or simplifying my schedule, I notice that I breathe a little faster, raise my shoulders to my ears, and feel almost claustrophobic. I immediately start thinking about the next thing on my list, how I don’t have enough time to do everything that I want to do. I eat unmindfully because my head is crammed with deadlines; I spend money for convenience for the same reason. I rarely slow down. That’s why I think this year’s theme will be Taking My Time.

One small mandala each day, mindfully.

One small mandala each day, mindfully.

I like the language of Taking My Time for a few reasons.  It obviously invokes slowing down, which could apply to my propensity to jump to conclusions as much as it does to hurrying from Point A to Point B. It also suggests that my time is mine. I often feel guilty for taking time for myself or saying no to something that will overwhelm my schedule; consequently, I don’t do much of either.  I also like how it is reminiscent of taking it a day at a time and living in the moment.

To that end (and not contradictorily!), I have chosen a very small, very doable 365 project of drawing one mandala each day as a mindfulness practice.  And I have other goals (SMART ones, even!) that I think I’ll take a month at a time.  January’s goals focus on food routines in our home–something I’ll talk about another time.

Happy New Year.