August 19, 2014 – 7:40 pm (EST)
It’s Tuesday evening and I as I sit and write I am filled with emotion. A soft, gray swirling tail of pipe smoke crosses through my field of vision, the aroma as familiar as any old companion.
Today was the second full day of activities at university for those of us in the professoriate who are starting new here this fall. The intentionality of the program is appreciated but I have been growing increasingly anxious to get started doing my job. I’ll confess I skipped out on the seminars this afternoon and after getting soaked in a summer shower and running home to change suits and grab an umbrella I was off to my office and that’s when the emotions hit. — Rather that’s when they were revived. They actually started Sunday afternoon…
I saw a charming movie entitled “The Giver.” It received mediocre reviews but any movie that can summon forth tears is welcomed. Apparently the book it is based on is required reading in many middle and high school classrooms today. However when Lois Lowry originally penned it in the early-mid 90’s, I was graduating from college so I was never exposed to this simple but powerful story. It is a parable about a civilization sometime in the future whose elders believed the best way to purge their society of crime, violence and harsh emotions was to re-create their world in black and white. Literally they systematically removed individual characteristics and distinctions, mandated injections that would inhibit people’s feelings and stressed cognitive and verbal precision. On paper I suppose their methods proved effective. However the point of the story is that to achieve this they had to sacrifice life itself. I won’t go too far into it if you have not yet seen it or like me, have never read the book. Suffice it to say the young protagonist Jonas becomes aware of the emotional, beautiful and at times terrible way people used to live and he fights to engage that once again. In the process he turns the finely tuned community on its collective head.
I cried because there were wonderful montages: deeply moving reminders that despite our capacity to inflict pain and suffering on ourselves and each other life really is worth living. Reminders that passion is rarely pragmatic, love rarely logical, life rarely simple.
I have taken many wrong turns in life. I have known too much pain and shame. But this afternoon as I sat at my desk on campus dreaming about my courses and chatting with my colleagues I realized I was happy. I really like it all. I like being here. I like being a professor. I like laughing in the hallways and strategizing how I can become a better educator. I like engaging life on this level. I like breathing and feeling deeply. And if these things must be inextricably coupled with anxiety and fear and pain…well then so be it.
“Things could change…,” Jonas went on. “Things could be different. I don’t know how, but there must be some way for things to be different. There could be colors.”
August 16, 2014 – 1:00 pm (EST)
Thank you for reading (or re-reading) my reflections from Lima. It has now been two weeks since I left Hogar San Francisco de Assis and ventured back into Lima for a few days of relaxation before returning stateside. As it turns out my body had different plans. Less than 24 hours after arriving at the hotel I literally crashed. I began running a high fever, my head was congested and let’s just say I spent a good portion of each day in the bathroom. I knew even at the time that I had not contracted anything serious during my service. Rather it was the culmination of pushing myself so hard for three months with virtually no let-up. All the courses I taught, the multiple trips to Michigan to secure a job and a place to live, moving all my things out there, all the goodbyes and finally my service at the orphanage…it all caught up to me and my body informed me in no uncertain terms that it was ready to slow down. So my time of “relaxation” could better be described as a feverish delirium, shivering under the covers, flat on my back. Certainly not enjoyable but fairly predictable.
To tell you the truth something about it just seemed “right.”
I was preparing to come back to the States, grab my pick-up and make the final drive out to Michigan whereupon I would begin my new life. It became for me a purging of sorts. A way to close out the chapter on the last four years – very good years — spent in Superior, WI. where wounds healed, excess weight was shed, friendships were formed, professorial skills were honed and the “closet” that had kept me in a self-confined imprisonment for so long was finally closed and locked BEHIND me forever. It was my experiential way of saying all of that was closing out and it was time to start again with a clean slate. And so it was. By the morning of my departure I had mostly healed and was ready not just to return to the U.S. but also to move forward.
Before I left HSFA I was privileged to participate in an honored tradition. All the kids that stay there and all the volunteers that serve there upon their departure, are allowed to leave their hand print on the walls and ceiling of the dining room. I remember the first morning I came downstairs and saw those I wondered how I would feel when my turn came andI dipped my hand in the paint, climbed the ladder and left my print. It was a great moment and of course the symbolism was not lost on me. I was literally leaving my mark at the orphanage but hopefully,in some very small way, I left a positive mark on the hearts & memories of those I served. But that has not always been the case. There were seasons in my life when my pain was so profound, my needs so great and the cost of living a lie so significant that I know those around me and who served under me must have experienced me as a “mixed blessing” at best. The marks I have left in my life have not always been positive and the memories of those times still hurt today. What I have striven to do is learn from those difficult moments, care for myself in very real ways and try to be a better man going forward. My hope is that in those places, moments and lives where my mark was not so positive, that over time I might be viewed in the larger context of my life and that some good emerges. I guess that’s the hope we all hold onto.
Meanwhile, I must move forward. Reflect, learn, purge, grow, improve.
So here I sit. In two days, I will begin life at a new university where I have been given an unbelievable opportunity to work hard, share what I know, impact lives and hopefully…hopefully, leave a lasting and beneficial mark on my world.
In C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, he referred to the children in the books as Little ‘Uns. I always liked that…it came to mind recently.
Hard as it is to believe my week of service at Hogar San Francisco de Assis is coming to an end. I am well, but tired. Not just from this week but from the busiest and most hectic summer in memory. Honestly, it feels like the last time I was living at a normal pace was spring semester sometime. I need rest. I need normalcy but I will always be grateful I came here.
These Little ‘Uns are amazing but those who know me well know that I have never been entirely comfortable with children. The youngest kids I worked with in my clinical career were about 12 and of course, I never had my own children. My nephew and nieces whom I love dearly grew up while I lived in other states. So really I just don’t have much experience with kids and to be honest, they have always intimidated me. – - Which is why it was important to come here:
2. I needed to return to the field doing the type of humanitarian work that changed my life in the late 2000′s but that was unrealistic financially during the past 4 years.
3. I needed to push myself to work with a demographic I was intimidated by, in a language not my own, performing functions that are not my forte, in a place where no one cares that I have a PhD. Why? Because it makes me a better man, a better professor and a better global citizen.
I have great privilege and there is much need in the world. I don’t think I can fix it all, in fact in the whole scheme of things, I can fix very little. But I hope my personal commitment to try changes me and gives me me credibility in the classroom and a better perspective for living in the US.
In just a matter of hours a driver will come and take me to the tourist district of Lima. I will have hot showers, a toilet that I can flush tissue in, the room will be spacious and clean, the streets will be swept and free of crime and I will rest. Then a few days after that, I will board a plane that will take me to Minneapolis, then a shuttle to Duluth, retrieve Jack (my trusty pick-up truck) and drive to Michigan where my new home, my new job and my new life await me.
The kids I have worked with this week will likely never experience most of the things I just mentioned. My world might as well be on a different planet. And at least at this point in my life I have not made a decision, like Dr. Tony did 30 years ago, to give all of that up to serve the poor. So how can I ensure that this was not just a privileged North American “slumming” down in South America for a week and using these kids to give me a feel good experience? I’m not sure I can answer that question entirely but here is what I hope:
- I hope that while I was here, the sincerity of my motives and my heart were evident to Dr. Tony, the staff and especially the children.
- I hope that the conditions and limitations I have witnessed here will serve as a touchstone for me as I begin my new life with its promotion, raise in pay and larger home. — A reminder that just because I can afford “it,” doesn’t mean I NEED it.
- I hope to realize a personal goal by begining to use a portion of my finances to invest in micro loans wherein US dollars can go incredibly far in developing and third world countries in assisting indigenous peoples to become entrepreneurs and ultimately, become self-sustaining.
- I hope that the memories of the Little ‘Uns seep through in my conversations, my writing and my teaching so that others might be inspired and made aware.
- I hope to remain committed to doing things like this every summer and for longer durations and in the near future, that I am creating cross-cultural learning experiences for our graduate students so they can experience this first-hand.
- I hope that I leave here a better man than when I arrived.
Yesterday I traveled with Peggy an adult auxiliary into Lima, where we took three of the boys to speech therapy. It was a long, but a good day. Two of the boys are just tiny 5 year olds and incredibly charming. We laughed a lot. Nearing the end of the busy day on a crowded bus, Peggy had one of three asleep on her lap and I sat next to her with the other sleeping on me. In the midst of all the noise and commotion surrounding us, I paused and just took it all in. Leaning over to her said to Peggy, “Soy contento.” She smiled and replied, “Ah, que bueno!” (“I am content.” “Ah, how wonderful!”)
Thanks for reading and for your ongoing support. I hear kids crying downstairs which means it’s time to go to work.
July 31, 2014 – 7:56 am (CST)
Daniel is 15 years old and has cerebral palsy. He was brought to HSFA about six months ago when his aunt found him face down in a field, immobile and helpless. Ostensibly this was a field his parents were working in at the time but caring for him came second to the demands of the job (a burdensome balance countless parents who are working poor across the globe have to face every day). Dr. Tony said that when he arrived he couldn’t walk, though he gets around fairly well now with the aide of a walker. Apparently his parents are out of the picture but Daniel’s aunt is trying to get situated such that she could take him in. Until then this is his home.
Today was Daniel’s physical therapy appointment in Lima and I was assigned to go along with him and the auxiliary staff person who would translate and conduct the business. What was my job? Lifting/carrying Daniel for much of the journey. Here in Peru if you’re poor or differently-abled, going to the doctor is no small task…
Lima is like most major metropolitan areas in developing or third world countries I’ve been in: over-crowded, hectic, smoggy, trash & dirt everywhere and absolutely, positively insane traffic. I learned early in my travels in India to not pay attention to what the driver was doing and to hold on tight (this has served me well). I don’t intend any offense in my description of Lima in fact I have pondered much this week about how the typical Lima citizen would describe her or his city and way of life – do they see themselves as poor? I don’t know. All I can say is that by U.S. standards, most would not be caught dead venturing into such conditions.
We boarded the first crowded bus at 8″30 am this morning. An hour later we disembarked, had to navigate the crowded streets of Lima for some time on foot before we boarded the second bus which was even more crowded. We rode this bus for a second full hour, and then had to walk another considerable distance before we arrived at the hospital. Every staircase, bus door or obstacle Daniel couldn’t navigate with his walker, he would walk clutching my arm or I would carry him. He is slight of build for a 15 year old…but he’s still a 15 year old young man. Only he knows for sure how it made him feel to have me carry him all over the city but my impression was, it caused at least some embarrassment. However you would never know this overtly because Daniel is about the kindest kid you could ever meet. I can’t understand anything he says between his Spanish and his quakey, palsied voice but his smile could melt your heart and his disposition makes you want to do anything you can to make his day easier.
More than 2 hours later we arrived for his appointment. I was tired, sweaty, my hands were filthy from the various buses and handrails and my arms were sore and I’m a healthy man. Imagine having a disability, being poor or defenseless and living in an under-developed region of the world with few considerations for those who are not fully-abled.
I must say the public hospital we went to was pristine, well-ordered and safe. Such a great resource for the people of this area. The real treat of the day came when the physical therapists asked me to come back with him and participate in his treatment. What a moving experience. They were amazing, talking softly to him, joking with him and so gentle while working his tightened, shaking muscles. Each exercise was designed to strengthen his body and give him better control. To be sure he will have to deal with this for the rest of his life but he is making progress and everything in me hopes he will be okay. After the appointment we repeated the same arduous journey back home. A nearly 6 hour, exhausting trip for 45 mins of PT.
At the end of the day, what are my thoughts and feelings?
1. I’m tired of all the bullshit arguments and obstruction…every human being deserves quality health care and there is NO excuse with the wealth in the world why this isn’t a reality. Those reading this whose politics might sway you differently, come carry Daniel to his next appointment.
2. Every unrealized “father instinct” in me was alive today. I felt like there was nothing in my power I wouldn’t have done for him.
3. As cliche and even condescending as it might sound, I wanted to deliver him from this world. The difference in the quality of life between Terry McGlasson and Daniel is incomprehensible. But Paolo Freire’s words rang true to me. The job of those of us with privilege is not to pity the “Daniels” of the world, not to view their circumstances through the lens of MY value system nor to adopt them like a pet. My moral obligation is to use my privilege and power to remove systemic roadblocks wherever I can and empower Daniel to live the life he wants to live…deserves to live.
Special Places…a Special Moment
HSFA used to be a large, private home likely for people who were wealthy. It is huge. Two stories, many rooms, a courtyard in back, etc. But the roof is a special place. If you’ve not seen them, roofs in many parts of the world are not angled and shingled. For so many like HSFA they serve as an important work area. All the wash basins and clothes lines are here. This is where the old women work each day, hand washing mountains of “kid clothes” in basins with scored wash boards while Latino music plays from small radios. And this is also where Dr. Tony lives as well as those of us who volunteer. We stay in what used to be the servant’s quarters. Dr. Tony tells us that the wealthy here hire mountain people from the Andes, provide them room, board and miniscule wages and these working class poor in turn, support these households.
I want you to see this roof through my eyes and I’ll share why it is special to me but if this feels overly emotional or sentimental I apologize in advance and can only tell you it is what I genuinely experienced.
The cement walls encircling the roof are about waist high and painted a dark goldenrod. Rooms line all the way down one side of the building, connected by an enclosed passageway. This gives way to an open-air work area. In the center are four large washing sinks covered by their own miniature roof and on either side of the sinks are row after row of clothes lines. The floor is cement, smoothed by years of pacing feet hard at work and always clean from the dripping “rain” of wet clothing. My tiny “penthouse” room is tucked away in a far corner.
This afternoon upon returning from the park, I was tired and needed some alone time. I kicked off my shoes, grabbed my journal and sat down in a far corner. I started to write, reflecting on my day. However I soon paused to look around me and listen. I could hear voices in the distance but no one was close enough in proximity to invade my solitude. Dogs barked, sirens wailed, horns blared but all of it seemed held back from me, tucked away in my little corner of the world. The late afternoon sun reflected off the Andes in the distance and while all of this contributed to a serene environment it was the clothes of all things, that triggered me.
The light breezes of the Peruvian day kept the linens and garments in a constant soft, silent motion. Hanging all around me were tiny socks and blouses, stuffed toys and sheets, diapers and special masks for miniature faces whose burned skin needs extra support for the long healing process. Each item hanging there represented a life that wore it, washed with it or slept in it. And each item represented hard, working hands that dressed children in it, cleaned up messes with it and scrubbed it clean to be used all over again.
Forgive me but this is where it gets kind of spiritual.
The sensation that I experienced at that moment, surrounded by these “living banners”…these wrappings of fortitude and perseverance made me feel as if I were in the company of some silent host, there to stand guard and give me pause. And that’s when they came. Tears from the wellspring of my parched soul flowed and I sat in my little corner and wept. I’m not entirely sure why I was crying. Perhaps it was for the collective maladies of the children. Maybe it was far enough from the reality of my world and the hectic pace of this summer that it felt like I finally had permission. It might have been that the loneliness that I so often experience gave way to a spiritual swaddling, wrapping me in a sense of safety. Or it could have been nothing more than fatigue. But whatever their origin, the tears poured forth and for the first time in a long while, I felt cleansed. Cleansed on a rooftop wash room of a children’s orphanage in Chaclacayo, Peru.
July 29, 2014 – 12:16 pm (CST)
Life at Hogar San Francisco de Assis (HSFA) is inextricably tied to structure. A daily schedule that offers order in the midst of chaos. And the anchoring points of the daily regimen are the three meals. Successfully feeding 20-25 children with disabilities is no small task. Some need assistance, most do pretty well on their own. But in the best of circumstances there is this elaborate ritual of setting each place, buttering the bread (for many of the ninos, this task is too intricate), serving the food, clearing the plates, dumping the debris, washing, rinsing, stacking, drying, replacing the dishes, wiping the tables, and finally, sweeping the floors. The children participate in much of this as they each have duties to perform. Several hours will pass and then the whole process begins again.
The true unsung heros of HSFA are the support staff. The cooks, those who wash the laundry (by hand) and the nurses. These remarkable women work non-stop in shifts around the clock. Meals are always cooking in the kitchen, tiny clothes are always being wrung out and hung on the many lines strung on the roof and the nurses are constantly attending to tiny babies, 1-2 year olds in casts, toddlers and children that are missing limbs and who often can’t walk, eat, or go to the bathroom by themselves. When the nurses are not directly attending to the children they are keeping copious medical notes that Dr. Tony will then review. Amazing.
It’s hard too adequately describe the energy here. In some ways this all runs like a piece of finely tuned machinery. In other ways it feels at times like no order exists in the universe at all. As an Existentialist I am committed to being present in the moment, to embracing all my feelings and perceptions whether they seem positive or negative and then taking responsibly for how I act (or don’t) on them. I believe deeply that “control” is a fantasy…something that in reality is not truly attainable yet we are constantly striving for a sense of that control because we hope it will calm our angst and make things “okay” again.
There have been moments like yesterday when we walked, pushed and carried 17 children several blocks to the park that my need for control was literally raging. Trying to anticipate all that could go wrong, trying to keep the group together…it felt like herding cats. And of course they don’t see the problem nor can they understand why I am fretting about them walking with crutches in the middle of the street.
Of course danger is real and it is my responsibility to watch over them. But the tricky part is what is occuring hidden deep inside me. How do I calm my nerves? Do I allow my anxiety to manifest itself in anger at the children? Do I detach and pretend I don’t care. Do I cloister myself in my room upon our return to artificially recapture that sense of order? (And if I was home would I turn to food to settle me as I have done most of my life?)
All of this encompasses the dualistic motivation for my journey here: there is Dr. Terencio Daunte McGlasson, PhD, the highly trained and experienced professional who possesses skills and training that empower him to dive into such an experience with confidence knowing he can be of assistance. But there is also Terry, the little boy that recognizes the fear and struggle in the faces of these children as if looking in a mirror. He is here too and his dread is that this ever-present sense of powerlessness might be detected by others around him and that they would conclude that he has no idea what he’s doing! – - Dr. McGlasson is here to help. But Little Terry must come along as well so that he might gain courage from the example of these amazing children and learn yet again, that he can survive…
July 28, 2014 – 12:12 pm (CST)
It is a quiet Monday morning, Independence Day in Peru. The kids are not in school but the house is sedate nonetheless. We had an active day yesterday including Mass, a trip to the park and lots of games. One must become quite adept at dodging soccer balls (futbol) in the courtyard as it seems they are constantly airborne.
I am humbled and astounded at the kids’ ability to function and navigate the 3 story home. Many who can’t walk, slide quickly on their butts. Most use crutches and are in braces. And while there are many spills and falls, they just get up and keep going with very little crying. I have pondered whether this is “good or bad.” I find myself, as an adult, admiring their toughness and resiliency, yet I recognize that these traits are likely borne from so many unrequited tears…aces. And while there are lots of spills and falls they j
(I had to pause because one of the little guys needed me to put his shoes on. He’s a charming little boy, tiny actually, with a patch over one eye and profound impairment to his legs. He hums quietly to himself as I tie his shoestring. He can’t quite pronounce Terry, it comes out like “Tweary.”)
I pause once in a while and watch these little ones through the eyes of a psychotherapist. While not all have been harmed or abandoned, many have been and while I recognize the significance of this Hogar (home), this safe haven where their physical needs are met in a loving community, I can only imagine the psychological and emotional scars that remain beyond casual perception. I stop pondering such things, go outside a kick the ball…
NOTE WELL: The next series of posts were written during a recent trip to Lima, Peru to volunteer at an Orphanage.
July 28, 2014 – 8:06 am (CST)
Greetings to you all. Well, I made it to Lima late Saturday night. Had some trouble finding my ride who was running late. If you’ve not traveled out of country and emerged from customs in a completely different culture, it is an experience you never forget. With everything I own on my back, I pass through a large door into what can best be described as a gauntlet of humanity, none of whom speak my language – they speak THEIR language. People are holding up signs with names but yours doesn’t appear on any of them. Countless taxi drivers approach you asking if you need a ride. And always, ceaseless noise and movement. About 40 mins later, I finally find my driver but what occurred to me was what it must be like for all those Central American children risking their lives, riding on top of trains for 1,000+ miles and then when they arrive, the gauntlet they face are Americans screaming at them, accusing them of being diseased invaders and blocking their way. Hard to imagine.
After a wild ride through Lima, a very large chaotic city, I made it to Hogar San Francisco de Assis about 1130pm. There isn’t time for a lot of sleep as the house gets moving early even on weekends. There have been awkward moments as I learned the ropes and got used to the kids, but it has been amazing so far. Lots of playing/exercise, washing dishes, carrying kids who struggle getting where they need to be, pushing others in wheel chairs and all the time trying to give them the care and attention they desperately need.
Palsey, malformations, broken bones, burned faces, orphans. These are the children Hogar San Francisco de Assis serves everyday and those I get encounter for my short stay here. Thanks for your thoughts, prayers and support…more soon.
I think one of the issues around my love-hate relationship with blogging is that I put too much pressure on myself to hit this internal quota of consistency in writing/posting and when I begin to fail at that I just end up quitting for extended periods of time. I never wanted to be one of the gazillions of blogs out there that got a great start and then sat untouched in perpetuity. Ughh!
I have the perfect excuse to dive back in again…I just returned from Peru and promised a dear group of friends and supporters that I would upload my reflections, as well as the pictures from my trip. So, here I go again.
Except that I am not making any promises, to myself or you the reader, as to how consistent I will post during this round (though I secretly hope there will be many forthcoming…shhhh). ;O)
Anyway if you’re one of the few individuals in the universe who found this and is reading it, thank you. I hope you find some inspiration somewhere in these words.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, NBC news has been soliciting input from their viewers. Their idea? To have people create a brief videotaped message completing the following statement:
“I have a dream that__________________________”
It struck my interest as I heard it in passing and it has stayed with me the last few days, so I thought I might take a stab at it on the ‘ol blog but before I do, one bit of context.
A few weeks ago my little brother who is an elementary school vice-principal, sent me a document via email. It was a copy of a district/state policy advising faculty and staff how to deal with transgendered students. This policy was pretty direct and to the point. My simple summary of it would be: transgendered students have a right to attend school without being harassed or made to feel excluded and faculty and staff have an obligation to eliminate or minimize any harmful effects of being a sexual minority on campus. As I read it, I became emotional and wrote him back thanking him for passing it along…(I just went back and read the email and here’s a portion of what I said): “…the thought that little ones are being raised in an environment where policies like this are in place gives me hope. Of course we can’t legislate tolerance and understanding anymore than the Right can legislate their notions of morality, but the enforced progressive policies of today, lay the groundwork for the ‘norm’ of tomorrow.”
Okay, so, back to my “dream:”
…I have a dream that before I die, our country will have progressed to the point where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered individuals will live in freedom, possessing the same, exact rights as all other citizens and existing absent of any externally imposed discrimination or fear.
…I have a dream that in my lifetime, LGBT individuals:
- will be able to legally marry in all 50 states if they so choose
- who are in loving, committed legal relationships will never be denied partner rights that heterosexual couples take for granted
- will be able to attend proms and school functions with the people they choose
- will appear more often in popular media, in local and national leadership positions and will be seen, if deserving based on their merits, as role models for our young people
- will be able to attend school where painful and degrading words, slurs and jokes will not be tolerated, rather they will be viewed as an unwelcome rarity
- will be increasingly welcomed back to churches that once condemned them
- will openly play professional sports alongside their “straight” teammates and will be cheered with equal vigor
- will be taught at home and at school that they are not an abnormality but rather, a beautiful statistical minority, who add to the complex tapestry of humanity
- will never, never , never again live in fear simply because of who they are and who they love.
While I am hopeful, I am far from certain that these things will occur in my lifetime. But the times…they are a changin’.
I grow weary and a bit perturbed with all the “talking heads” on television who presume to speak for Dr. King…who presume to know what he would say currently or how he would have continued to conduct his affairs. So in a conscious attempt to NOT do that, let me simply say that while I have no idea what ground he would be staking or what issues he would be willing to be beaten and jailed for today, I hope that LGBT civil rights would be one of them.
But here’s what others ARE saying:
Representative John Lewis, the last surviving podium speaker from the original March on Washington and long-time civil rights activist has said: “I fought too long and too hard to end discrimination based on race and color, to not stand up against discrimination against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’…Human rights, civil rights, these are issues of dignity. Every human being walking this Earth, whether gay, lesbian, straight, or transgendered, is entitled to the same rights. It is in keeping with America’s promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Julian Bond, the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center and former president of the NAACP stated: “LGBT rights are civil rights. No parallel between movements is exact. But like race, our sexuality and gender identity aren’t preferences. They are immutable, unchangeable – and the constitution protects us all against discrimination based on immutable differences.”
And Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an icon of our own time who is no stranger to oppression, suffering and the fight for justice, declared: “I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this…I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place.”
So world, I guess that’s “my dream”…my hope for the future. But meanwhile here in the present, right now, I am alive to witness amazing changes: old voices and new, black and white, straight and gay, all speaking up for equal rights and respect for all people.
I’ll close with the words of Bayard Rustin, a black, gay man who was one of the primary organizers of Dr. King’s March on Washington, 50 years ago this Wednesday:
“When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.”
Each year I have the distinct privilege to be one of many people that volunteer to train the residence life staff here at the University of Wisconsin – Superior. These are amazing folks…student-workers who truly constitute the front line. They live in the residence halls, side by side with our students and work every day to form relationships, earn trust, seek understanding, mediate disputes, listen to complaints, design fun activities, sponsor educational events and yes, report violations of the rules when this is warranted.
My contribution typically is to speak to them about diversity and inclusivity. To discuss issues of social justice like privilege and oppression and give them pertinent information and strategies that hopefully will aide them as they seek to create an environment that is safe, open and welcoming for all people. I often share my personal story of the long and painful road I traveled coming to grips with my authentic identity – racially, spiritually, sexually, etc., my small attempt to lead with and model, vulnerability.
So yesterday I found myself out in the scenic woods of northern Wisconsin at the Pigeon Lake Retreat Center explaining and sharing and listening and laughing with over 50 of our “best and brightest.” During break-out sessions when they were working in small groups discussing training scenarios, I roamed around the room listening to these young leaders thinking deeply, feeling empathetically and seeking solutions for fictitious situations that could easily become realities sometime during the coming year. There were some pretty special moments and I can assure you – you would have been inspired.
Meanwhile on the news tonight, I saw devastating and disturbing pictures from Syria — rows and rows of dead children, the innocent victims of chemical weaponry launched at their homes by forces engaged in a civil (or not so civil) conflict they couldn’t begin to understand. What must their last moments of life been like? And a family in Australia mourned the loss of their college-aged son, living here in the US and attending school in Oklahoma where he played baseball. While out for a run he was shot dead, in the back, by three African American teenagers who apparently didn’t know him and had no motive for this violent act.
And all of this – local, national, international is taking place in the context of the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the civil rights March on Washington and Dr. King’s famous, I Have a Dream speech. There has been and will continue to be much discourse by the talking heads as to how much progress has actually been made since those turbulent and glorious days. I’m not sure any of us really knows. However it seems clear that as long as the news is broadcasting posthumous photos of murdered Syrian children and mug shots of American teenagers accused of murder, that we still have a ways to go.
So tonight I choose to turn my thoughts back to the “Res. Life” staff here at UWS. They will likely not have to deal with civil war or drive-by shootings but they will doubtless encounter the embryonic seeds of such tragic behaviors: ignorance, fear and misunderstanding. And in those critical moments, if they can fall back on their training and better yet, the best and most sensitive aspects of their own natures, perhaps an entrenched position might be softened or a bigoted viewpoint respectfully challenged; a discussion rather than a slur, insights rather than insults. Am I naïve to think that integrity displayed on this local level might actually avert a tragedy broadcast on some future edition of the national evening news?
So here’s my “shout out” to those beautiful and committed folks: to the directors, the central staff and the RA’s of Ross, Hawkes, Crownhart, Ostrander and Curran-McNeil Halls. Thank you for your commitment and all the hard work to come. You are truly great.
Dr. King said: “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
When I am on a roll…when I am doing well in life, I can be found in the gym at 6am most mornings. That’s the only time of day that it’s realistic I will get my workout in. I like to use the exercise bike so I can read while I sweat. I have tried this on the treadmill and it doesn’t work. For some reason the only thing I can do on the treadmill is walk and concentrate on not falling off. So I have settled for the bike and a good book.
Lately, I have been re-reading J.D. Salinger’s, “Catcher in the Rye.” Geez, there’s a reason it is a modern classic. I know many people don’t care for it and still more just don’t get it. I’m not arrogant enough to think I have totally grasped all of what Salinger was trying to convey. But here’s why I find it valuable. The principle character, Holden Caulfield is often dismissed as a disrespectful, “rebel without a cause.” I think this is a tragic misrepresentation and underestimation of this complex character. Holden, in my opinion, is the mouthpiece for all the things I think, day-to-day, but dare not speak. He is graphic and irreverent and down right coarse at times yet when I read him I experience some kind of private, guilty catharsis…as if I am boldly speaking vicariously through him. But here’s the thing, as he muddles through a confusing couple of days wandering around New York, skipping school and expressing his anger at myriad people and institutions, Salinger allows his vulnerability to seep out ever-so-slightly and beneath the youthful impertinence is a scared little boy wanting to believe that someone really cares…that someone out there really is authentic. Listen to this excerpt I recently copied into my journal:
“I went down by a different staircase and I saw another ‘Fuck you’ on the wall. I tried to rub it off with my hand again, but this one was scratched on, with a knife or something. It wouldn’t come off. It’s hopeless anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world…That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write, ‘Fuck you’ right under your nose.”
Why in the world am I drawn to this passage? While not entirely sure, two things come to mind. First, I think I feel his disappointment with life’s tarnish. It seems like there is no place that is pure…no where one can go and not see the damage that humanity wreaks on itself. I have spent my life listening to people’s stories…mostly their pain and disillusionment and I have often said that I wished that I could go home, take a “shower” and wash it all away. Not the after affects of the people themselves but the struggle and despair that they convey. It makes me sad and reminds me that there is so much that I cannot fix. I can rub and rub for the rest of my life but there will always be another ‘Fuck you’ sprayed on somewhere. And yet, unexpectedly I had another thought: every single ‘Fuck you’ is actually someone, somewhere trying to say something. No, I am not trying to romanticize graffiti though I do believe it can be, at times, a legitimate art form…a legitimate form of self-expression. What I am trying to say is that we are surrounded by masses of people who are secretly depressed and anxious but are actively working to bury this so deeply that no one knows they are falling short of the “American Dream.” We smile when we want to cry; we scream when we want to be heard; we push away when we really want to be held tightly. We are so afraid of anyone seeing our vulnerability that we go to great lengths to hide any trace of these deep longings in our lives…to the point that after a while, we begin to fool ourselves into believing the lies as well. We can gripe and complain about the ‘Fuck you’ messages we seem to encounter at every turn but maybe the reason we are so disturbed by them is that in all truth, we want to write them ourselves! On my worst day, if I could ever release the iron grip of control that I impose on myself, I wonder if it wouldn’t feel really good to rent a large billboard and with a gigantic can of spray paint, write my own ‘Fuck you!” Of course whatever release it would give me would be short-lived because my desperate declaration would be decried out-of-hand by my fellow citizens with no one understanding that below the frustration and anger they assume motivated my vandalous act there exists an honest plea for someone to listen to my pain.
Maybe the answer is not to keep rubbing out the ‘Fuck you’ messages of the world. As Holden indicated, that would be impossible. Maybe if we were all willing to risk speaking the truth and we were equally committed to listening to one another, the existential graffiti of our lives – the mad etchings of an unheard populace — would disappear on their own…
Where did the spring go?! What happened to my lofty goal of two posts per week? How is it that nearly six months have passed since I took the time to write here?
There probably are answers to these questions but it wouldn’t really matter. Life gets busy, priorities get misplaced and we convince ourselves that there isn’t enough time for some things and so back on the shelf they go. Truth is, we make time for what is most important.
So, here I go again. No promises, just check in every once in a while and see if I have said anything worth reading.
It is cold here. No, I am mean REALLY cold! We have had many days lately when the high temperature did not eclipse zero degrees. Bone-chilling cold.
As I write this morning, there is a part of me that feels warm and safe inside my little home. It is beautiful outside in a frozen sort of way. The sun has risen and glares off the snow and ice and gazing at it from the warmth of my “nest,” it is not threatening in the least. It occurred to me that I am “quiet” right now. There is nothing really big happening. I have resumed my routine at university. I know my job…my comings and goings are familiar territory. I like that. The weekends are uneventful too. And not a lot to do outdoors for me. No baseball, no bike riding, no long walks or tranquil pipe smokes. Far too harsh for any of that. So I wonder to myself if this is not what winter is supposed to be for us higher level mammals as well? Should we not also slow ourselves and take account and appreciate the shelter we have and the chance for a lazy stride? Hibernation.
I also feel a faint restlessness. As if there is something coming right around the bend but rather than an active awareness of it that would necessitate caution or action, it feels more like the slightest memory of a dream that has been mostly forgotten. More an impression really. I feel as if I should be staging for something. Ramping up. Prepping. There is a part of me that wants to thaw and run. Warm up and get going! Attack the day. Move back into the outdoors of late spring and summer that I love here in the upper Midwest. Movement.
I suspect this is a larger tension of life.
The little boy in me wants to lock himself inside, surrounded with his familiar possessions and smells and sensations…a little fortress where the harshness of life cannot intrude. I can dance, or sing embarrassingly loud or nap unprotected or walk around partially clothed. Anything I want to do because I can. Yet the man in me sees opportunity all the time. Fascinating professional challenges just waiting for my unique talents, lived experiences and skill set.
Perhaps what I am really feeling is not as simple as a cute, dichotomous metaphor of the changing seasons in the Northland.
Maybe what I am really trying to ask is whether I have entered a time in life where it is acceptable to slow my pace (as with winter) and enjoy the journey I have traveled. To slow down a bit and relax. To REALLY be okay with just having a familiar routine. Have I not earned it after 45 years of striving and schooling and “earning my stripes?” But then there is this other part of me that wants so much more…so much more. I want to run faster than my literal, middle-aged physical body will move. I want to grab every moment lest another one doesn’t offer itself. The world is blooming and reawakening (as with spring) and don’t I need to be right in the middle of it? Isn’t there a book I should be writing? An article to publish? A crusade to pursue? An injustice to right? There is so much out there and so little time.
And if I did those things would it then offer the sense of satisfaction I believe I am longing for? Would it finally give me the recognition I think I deserve? Would it finally satisfy the critics voices…whispers that in truth, only exist in my own head?
I doubt it.
There needs to be an additional season. One that exists out on the frontier between winter’s cessation and spring’s movement. One called “peace” where one can just be…and that’s okay.
It’s really cold outside…
For those of you who have not seen it or have heard negative things about it, could I take a moment to comment on the recently released movie, “Cloud Atlas?” I have seen it twice now and will probably see it again before it leaves the theaters. It’s not that I don’t have anything better to do. Quite frankly, I am haunted by it. I really mean that. It is a very complex movie consisting of six different story lines, spanning hundreds of years and the movie is constantly moving back and forth from one story to the next. At first it is confusing and even frustrating as one attempts to mentally force the movie to rewind…to stop everything and say, “Okay, so this is how that connects to them…” In the end indeed all six stories are connected in a timeless tapestry that somehow gives this jarring ride a deep sense of meaning and purpose. The reason to return to it again and again is that each time I view it I figure out more of the connections. They’re all there but at times things are moving so fast you don’t readily recognize them.
Another truly remarkable aspect of the movie is that the same ensemble of actors portrays all the different characters in each of the time lines. Through the use of amazing make-up and prosthetics these artists of the silver screen bring to life multiple lives and as someone who would love to be artistic and creative but simply cannot conjure it, I have so much respect for their versatility. Really grand work.
So why am I writing about all of this? The point is not an amateur movie review or to try to convince the few of you who follow this blog to go see it. I’m guessing many people will not find it an enjoyable journey. I am writing because I think for me, the allure of this complicated movie is that it speaks to the complex longings and questions and desires of my own heart.
I’m a tough nut to crack sometimes (as we all can be). You see I absolutely reject determinism – the idea that somehow our lives are all laid out ahead of time (either by a divine being or simply by the universe). Instead I am a big free will guy who chooses to embrace that we daily (if not hourly) directly interact with fate/god/the universe to determine our own destiny. That in the end our paths are a long chain of personal choices that we have made for our lives. As an existential psychotherapist back in my clinical days, I had a theoretical bias that for a person to be healthy and whole they had to do at least two things: embrace the responsibility she or he has to live their own personal lives and then to go live them, taking responsibility for each individual choice made each day.
It’s kind of like paving the road in front of you, one brick at a time but laying them down as you walk. So rather than standing on the edge of my future, looking out on the horizon identifying which way my path leads it is more like I stand on the edge of my future and in front of me is just raw landscape. I can envision what it might look like when I begin to put in place each successive brick but in fact the road will not exist until I get moving. After a while I can reflect back behind me and see where I’ve been. And I can look down and see where I am at now but when I look forward the path is as yet undetermined. Now despite my existential dreaminess, the “undiscovered country” can be quite intimidating and downright scary at times. Especially when you truly own the fact that it is my responsibility to lay the bricks. I am often frightened by the prospect that somehow I won’t do it right. Or that I will choose a particularly difficult route. Or that in retrospect and with regret, I will discover that had I gone through that valley instead of those mountains that the experience might have been far more positive. Well you get the point.
Now back to the story. The characters in each of the six story lines did not know that in the whole scheme of things they were all interconnected. Each was preoccupied by her or his own concerns in the moment on their own respective sojourn. But pull back and consider the entire patchwork of lives and experiences and one begins to see a pattern…a series of connection points that not only stitches the various stories together but somehow gives each one added meaning. And that’s why I write this morning.
As strongly as I reject determinism and believe that my life is guided by my own free will, I want there to be some deeper meaning in it all. I want to be able to look back and see how the course my path took was altered in beautiful ways by the intersecting paths of fellow pilgrims on the journey. No, not the revelation of some grand predetermined universal plan or the unrolling of the blue prints of some master architect. But rather complex beautiful individuals all facing the same daunting task of paving their own roads but what would be revealed in the end…what couldn’t always be readily recognized in the moment…is that my choice to lay this brick in that particular place allowed me to “bump” into you as you were laying your brick. And while at times I would dismiss this chance encounter as an unwelcome intrusion and walk off on a newly altered course, there might be other times when the curiosity of this chance encounter might invite both of us to pave parallel paths for a while and “join” together for part of the journey. What a beautiful thought. But it is more complex than even that. What if those bumps along the way…even the ones we readily dismissed as inconsequential or worse yet, irritating…what if later as we are reflecting back we realized that there was far more meaning in the moment, far more consequence than our temporal distractions allowed us to recognize? And that as we have walked all this way and paved all these miles it turns out that it really wasn’t just an individual quest but that the actual, very real direction of my path was altered innumerable times by the encounters I had with others, even when I couldn’t or wouldn’t see it in the moment. And even better, that as I travel through life and grasp this mysterious truth that I might so condition myself as to begin to watch for these moments…these people and that I might CHOOSE to invite one to walk alongside me for a spell. Or I might CHOOSE to ask myself, contemporaneous to the encounter, “I wonder what meaning I might draw from that?” Or that I might CHOOSE to intersect another’s path humbly believing that I might influence her or his journey in a positive way.
I really do find comfort in my belief that no one person or thing dictates how I must live my life. But as I have grown older and hopefully wiser, I am finding that the rugged individualism has given way to a lonely heart’s longing to have people to bump into…and to want beautiful and challenging people to bump into me. And while it is true that this means I don’t have the singular control I thought I wanted and while it is also true that some of these chance meetings might not be pleasant nor their meaning readily obvious, what it does mean is that I am not alone…
An excerpt from the Amazon.com book description:
“The result is brilliantly original fiction that reveals how disparate people connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.” Cool. :O)
I like a good quote as much as the next person but I must admit that I had never heard this one before: “A ship in harbor is safe but that is not what ships are built for.” I heard that from Dustin, my therapist the other day and it has stayed with me – haunted me – ever since. “Safety” is an interesting concept and I think it deserves a little unpacking here. But I will confess up front, I realize that I view safety through two very different and oft times conflicting lenses : those of Dr. Terencio Daunte McGlasson, PhD, retired psychotherapist and current professor of counseling…and just plain ol’ Terry McGlasson, vulnerable and fragile human being. So, if you want to read on, I’ll let both of them speak their respective minds to you and you can sort it out…
Dr. Terencio Daunte McGlasson, PhD: Safety from a counseling perspective is critical. Not safety physically (though of course this is important) but rather psychological and emotional safety. We live in an emotionally unsafe world. We bind up our hearts and souls because we’re terrified that if we put the real us out there we’ll get sliced and diced. I’m not suggesting that every moment of every day we consciously withhold or repress. No, it is far more insidious than that. It starts when we are very young. We are born into this world rather uninhibited. We cry when we hurt, we laugh when we find something funny. We speak without edit or censure. Why? Because as little ones it doesn’t occur to us not to. We are simply acting out of our nature and its instincts. And while this can create untold embarrassing moments for our parents and teachers and ministers there is truly something to be admired here. I think it is just one of the reasons why we all look so fondly upon children. Perhaps there is a little envy there? Oh to be young and uninhibited again. But usually that’s as far as we take it because we also implicitly understand that to be young and uninhibited also means to be vulnerable and relatively defenseless. As we grow and mature, we absorb the proverbial blows of life and we begin to discern a message that it is far less painful if we don’t put ourselves out there…if we don’t speak our opinions…if we don’t share our feelings. Worse yet we are conditioned by the adults and older kids around us that it is not appropriate to cry when we’re hurting or laugh at the things that we find funny. And we really should withold our raw thoughts because it’s not polite to speak our minds. And you can see where all this leads. The combination of the indoctrination by adults that had long ago shut down their own true selves with the body blows of our raw, honest heart offerings being shoved back down our throats, would tempt even the most steadfast, pure spirit to callous over and drink society’s Kool-Aid – in essence to give in and gag ourselves in deference to conformity and survival.
Now back to my original point. Professor McGlasson teaches his counseling students that our first priority as therapists is to be SAFE PEOPLE and to create a SAFE SPACE for our clients to enter into. This safe space (the therapy office) is what D.W. Winnicott referred to as the “holding environment” and interestingly the premise of his excellent work on this issue of psychological safety was built on the intimacy of the mother-infant relationship. He believed that for a therapist to create a safe-enough environment for healing to occur, the therapist needed to re-create the safety and nearness of the mother-infant relationship. In essence the therapist is to authentically communicate unconditional acceptance as a way of wooing the “little child” out of its hiding place residing deep within our adult shells. As this dance begins, the truest aspects of who we are emerge and they then are secured in this holding environment where the therapist (in lieu of mom) cherishes them and keeps them safe. Now for you non-counselor types this might seem weird or sound like a bunch of psychobabble but trust me when I tell you it is very real, it is accurate and I have had the distinct privilege of witnessing it hundreds of times in my career. Truth is once a person feels safe the rest begins to happen quite rapidly. Why? Because most of us desperately want to be heard and seen for whom we really are.
A side note: two of my former students, April and Jake, stopped by to see me yesterday with their beautiful 3 week old daughter, Atlee. What a profound joy to bear witness to this young couple with their tiny, baby daughter. What satisfaction to hear them recall the story of Atlee’s birth and their accompanying feelings as she struggled towards life in the world outside April’s safe womb. And as I watched them hold her and attend to her these ideas about safety came home to me.
Okay, so that’s the basic idea of psychological safety from Dr. McGlasson’s perspective to. It is sacred, it is critical to the therapeutic relationship and basically without it nothing can be accomplished. Now let’s hear from plain old Terry McGlasson, vulnerable and broken human being…
Plain Ol’ Terry McGlasson: I want to be safe all the time. I don’t want to take risks. I don’t want to get hurt. I don’t want people to think I am weird or off-base or silly. I just want to fit in. I want to look like everyone else. I want to be found acceptable. I want that special person to see me as attractive and desirable, not complicated and needy. I don’t want to be laughed at or misunderstood. I want to be seen as brilliant and insightful. And consequently on a personal level I am loathe to take risks. But despite the fact that I say I want real friendships with people, time and time again I balk because I am not sure that I want them to see the real me. And despite the fact that I say I long for the companionship and love of a life partner, time and time again I balk because I am afraid of being rejected.
Enter Dustin and his comment about the ships…Now stay with me because here’s the BIG clincher:
I am sitting in my therapist’s office on Friday morning where he has worked to create a safe holding environment (remember Winnicott’s theory?) so that I can be real and share the thoughts and feelings that reside deep within (of which he has done an amazing job) and then he pulls out the million dollar “ships quote,” basically saying to me, “You can keep playing it safe and maybe you will avoid feeling rejected and hurt, but that’s not what you are designed for. That’s not what LIFE was designed for.” WOW! He created a safe space so that he could challenge me to stop playing it so safe! Ha! Counseling students: that’s the key to successful therapy! Everyone else: that’s the key to successful life! Yes, we desperately need safety and we can’t be our true selves without it. But safety taken too far leaves us constrained, hiding in the shadows. Permanently anchored in safe harbor, if you will.
Whew! Okay, I’m going to stop writing for now.
I need to weigh anchor and get back out to sea.
To be continued…
NYMAG.COM (01/02/13) -
“After taking its sweet time but eventually addressing the fiscal cliff, the House of Representatives thinks it deserves a little break. Speaker John Boehner and his gang of merry Republicans will likely fail to pass a bill providing aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy before adjourning this week, leaving a $60.4 billion package passed by the Senate to die. If no vote occurs, legislation must be reintroduced and passed all over again in the new Congress.
“This is absolutely indefensible,” said Republican Peter King of New York on the House floor Tuesday night. “We have a moral obligation to hold this vote.”
Another New York politician Representative Nita Lowey echoed King’s disappointment in Boehner. “I truly feel betrayed this evening,” she said. “We can pass this bill tomorrow with bipartisan support.” The House has for weeks put up resistance to the Senate aid package, which is set to expire on Thursday at noon.
“It is truly heartless that the House will not even allow the Sandy bill to come to the floor for a vote, and Speaker Boehner should reconsider his ill-advised decision,” said Senator Charles Schumer. Nancy Pelosi added on Twitter, “We cannot leave here doing nothing. That would be a disgrace.”
A spokesman for Boehner told Buzzfeed, “The speaker is committed to getting this bill passed this month,” but the symbolism of waiting to address the disaster — especially in the wake of the fiscal cliff mess — is enough to rankle just about every politician from the affected areas. “I am stunned, stunned,” said Representative Rob Andrews of New Jersey. “I assume there is a tactical consideration here, that the Republican leadership didn’t want to be anywhere near a big spending bill after the fiasco of their handling the tax debate. I understand the tactics but there is a real human need here that is being ignored.”
Update: President Obama joins the chorus calling for action in a statement:
It has only been two months since Hurricane Sandy devastated communities across New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut as well as other eastern states. Our citizens are still trying to put their lives back together. Our states are still trying to rebuild vital infrastructure. And so, last month, working closely with the Governors of the affected states, I sent Congress an urgent request to support their efforts to rebuild and recover. The Senate passed this request with bipartisan support. But the House of Representatives has refused to act, even as there are families and communities who still need our help to rebuild in the months and years ahead, and who also still need immediate support with the bulk of winter still in front of us.
When tragedy strikes, Americans come together to support those in need. I urge Republicans in the House of Representatives to do the same, bring this important request to a vote today, and pass it without delay for our fellow Americans.
Happy New Year everyone!
Thought I would give the blog a clean, fresh look and use a font that was a little larger. Hope you continue to read in 2013. My best wishes to you all!
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.
It feels very strange to have nothing to do. All the teams went out today but myself and a colleague are staying in-house because we have to do all the paperwork to end our deployment (out processing). We followed up on some cases by phone today known as “hot shots” and I can feel myself winding down…and longing for home.
I wanted to thank you all again for reading along. Please know that I would love to have you continue to connect with my blog. While I don’t usually post everyday like I did here in NYC, a former student of mine from Portland State, Ben, recently inspired me to get active here again so my goal in 2013 is to post at least twice a week.
As I stated earlier, when I get home and have had some distance from here and a little time to process, I will write some more…my way of getting closure on this amazing experience.
I will usher in the new year in my quiet little apartment in the cold of Superior, Wisconsin but as cliche as it may sound, I will do so with a renewed perspective on how fortunate I am and at the same time, how fragile our lives really can be. I hope that the valuable lessons I have learned here will not be soon forgotten.
As per my custom (and as is with so many others), I will be reflecting on 2012 and setting goals…seeking a vision really…for 2013. And in that light I wish you all a meaningful and reflective holiday. “Talk” to you soon!