Hanging Up the Vest…for Now.


I’m home and it feels really good.  I made a quirky decision on the plane to extend my personal Christmas as I feel like I missed out on many quiet, peaceful moments leading up to the holiday due to my time in bustling New York City.  So as I write today my Christmas tree is lit, I am listening to carols on my computer and I am sitting at my desk in front of the familiar living room window that I find myself so often gazing through (the lower large window to the far right in the picture above).  Snow covers the ground and it is 5 degrees outside.  As of yet I have not made a decision when “Christmas” will be over for me…just taking it day to day though I have the strangest sense that I am cheating on something or breaking some kind of sacred rule.  However I find solace in that for some branches of Christendom, Christmastide lasts until January 6th.  So there!

I spent a long, blurry day flying home in a state of quasi-sleep.  Much to my chagrin I have never been able to rest on planes.  But what a beautiful sight as we approached the Duluth airport (big metal shed), to fly in over Lake Superior.  Though I have only been out here less than three years, I have grown quite fond of my transplanted upper midwest home.

My apartment was just as I had left it two weeks ago with the exception of a mailbox stuffed full of bills, advertisers and Christmas cards and several of my plants in desperate need of water and none to “happy” with me.  I unpacked, took a long hot shower, watched some college football and had some dinner.  Then just to prove that I had not lost my obsessive-compulsive tendencies during my recent travels, I went back through all my New York blog entries, correcting misspellings and generally cleaning things up! (BTW, if you haven’t noticed I am a freak about “commas;”  I’m not sure why but I insert commas EVERYWHERE and then have to go back and delete 95 % of them which causes my brother Jamie no small amount of amusement)  Why did I feel the need to go back through all my posts?  Because it would have driven me “crazy” not to.  Yet another crack in the portrait.

But seriously, posting here during my two week deployment was so cathartic for me.  The only time I could realistically write was early in the mornings at Red Cross headquarters before I would head out into the field for the day (my hotel charged $14 per day for WiFi).  But usually this did not afford me much time and it was never quiet or slow there so I would sit in front of a lap top with people buzzing all around me and my ear phones firmly implanted, desperately attempting to drown out the background noise.  It is really quite amusing as I reflect back on it mainly because this type of environment is about the exact opposite of the way I normally live.   I thrive on quiet and solitude.  I typically write or blog or study in total isolation.  So sitting there next to the main printer on the floor with people passing by me constantly, I would type fiercely racing the clock and often tearing up while I relived the events of the day before.

The last two weeks have flown by.  What an incredible experience.  I am sure that I have not yet processed it all and I find myself wandering back to New York in my thoughts with the images of many individuals in my mind.  While I was definitely ready to return home and felt good about the work I did there, the overwhelming majority of people I met still have such a long way to go.  Simple things that I take for granted just since returning home less than 24 hours ago: a hot shower, electricity, a mold-free environment and all my possessions, secure as when I left them — these are all privileges that the people I worked with do not enjoy this New Year’s day.  I was catching up on the news last night (I am a confirmed news addict) and of course the “fiscal cliff” dominated the headlines.  While this routinely caused me to roll my eyes before leaving for New York, I found myself actually angry last night as I listened to arrogant politicians feed the cameras bullshit excuses as to why they were not doing their jobs and acting on the best interests of the American people.  And then I thought about how this must sound/appear to the stricken folks I met in Staten Island and Queens and Long Island.  Can you imagine?  These people, in addition to everything they are living through daily, now face a reality of higher taxes and penalties because a bunch of selfish narcissists refuse to set their egos aside?  Of course this morning comes late news that the disaster has apparently been averted for another month or two, whereupon we’ll get on the same silly ride all over again.



I hung up my red vest for now though I hope not for the last time.  For any bureaucratic faults the American Red Cross might have as a gigantic volunteer organization, I have a lot of respect for the work they do.  I have only had a limited glimpse but I can testify to countless people who expressed their heartfelt appreciation and said to me over and over again that if they were to give to a charity in the future it would be the Red Cross.  That was nice to hear.

One final thought about all of this.  My last day in NYC I enjoyed speaking on the phone to one of my students, Jim who is currently interviewing for a paid internship/job with a counseling agency.  It would be an amazing opportunity for him and he is an incredible individual, gifted not only as a counselor-in-training but as a human being.  I helped him navigate all the “counselor speak” that was being thrown at him and was pleased to be able to share with him the benefit of having spent nearly two decades in the profession.  Counseling students, like anyone new to a trade or profession, often struggle with the nomenclature and nuances of the reality of the profession as we can only expose them to so many things in graduate school.  He seemed to find the discussion helpful and I hung up with a satisfied feeling.  I hope he gets the position as I know he could do much good.  But the conversation stood in stark contrast to what I had been doing in New York for two weeks.  You see even though to deliver disaster mental health services for the Red Cross, you need to be a licensed professional, they also have very strict guidelines as to what we can do and not do while working for them.  We cannot diagnose or treat…in other words, no real counseling or therapy.  This can be incredibly frustrating at times but I completely understand it on practical grounds, not to mention legal ones.  So ironically, what we are left to do is just basic human comfort.  I shook lots of hands and gave many hugs and listened, listened, listened.  Back to the basics.  And how wonderful indeed.  My student Jim is at a place in his budding counseling career where he needs to be at the top of his game, understanding the differences in theoretical orientations, treatment techniques and protocols.  But in my heart of hearts what I want most for him and all those that I teach and supervise is that they never forget the primal human needs: to be heard and to be respected.

The great author, W.H. Auden once wrote:

“Healing, Papa would tell us, is not a science but the intuitive art of wooing nature.”

I have had this quote written in a book for quite some time as I knew he was conveying something special that I couldn’t quite get my finger on.  Now I think I might understand what Auden’s father was trying to say.  The people of New York have recently been at the mercy of nature’s ferocity having little to no control over the rising tides, the winds and rain and they paid a heavy price — no “wooing nature” there.  Yet upon meeting these battered and bruised people many of whom were not initially keen on opening up to a complete stranger — a retired professional therapist whose clinical skills were necessarily fettered — I found myself falling back on my instincts: speak their language, show them you pose no threat, listen much more than you talk, respect their dignity, allow yourself to be touched by their pain and anger.  And in so doing (though certainly I  did not do it flawlessly), I think in my own little way, I “wooed nature” and hopefully, opened the door ever so slightly for healing to begin.

So I guess that’s it.  I will post this and return to my college football, assorted snacks and likely a long nap in the comfort of my secure little home.  But always, in the back of my mind, is the awareness of how fragile all of this really is.

Happy New Year.


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