Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Save Our Children -Opt Them Out!

I'm out of town for a few days, but this information was sitting in my e-mail inbox so I thought I'd pass it alone. I have done no research to verify any of this, but Sojourners is a pretty reliable source as a general rule. In the interest of full disclosure, my brother is an Air Force recruiter. Doubtless, he will comment here and we'll hear more about this from his perspective. Just remember, I'm older and tougher than he is.

Buried within the No Child Left Behind Act (called by my friend Anne the No Child's Behind Left Act), is a provision requiring public high schools to deliver students' private contact information to military recruiters. If a school does not comply, it risks losing federal education funds. Moreover, the Pentagon has assembled a database of 30 million 16-25 year olds (two of whom I birthed!), to serve as another recruitment tool.

So, Sojourners magazine and community is partnering with Working Assets and others in the Leave My Child Alone Coalition to make it eay to protect children from unwanted military recruiting by getting their names off both the school's and the Pentagon's lists. Click here to opt your child out: Opt Out

I have to say that, when recruiters were calling our house daily, I never had much trouble getting them to go away. Just say you're a pacifist. Your name probably goes in some "nut case" file, but I really don't care. But I've encouraged my kids to opt themselves out anyway.

Or, you could host an Opt Out back-to-school party. Names are generally delivered to recuiters in October. So it's important to get as many kids as possible opted out in September. So, from September 7-September 30, this same Coalition is sponsoring Opt Out parties. Hosting a party is easy. Teenagers don't even care if you clean; just serve pizza and all will be well. Sojourners will send you all the forms and information you need, as well as an explanatory DVD. Go here to register your party: Party Registration .

Feel free to investigate further before you take any action. And let me know if this information seems to be unreliable. But really... if it all pans out, opt your child out.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Breaking My Own Rules

I'm supposed to muse about social work issues today, and I have several thoughts percolating around in my brain. Unfortunately, they are staying resolutely sub-verbal. I hate that. That probably means that it's a good time to shut up, though.

The questions I'm musing on include -where's a better model for helping people in crisis than Critcal Incident Stress Management? I know some exist, but I also know that the Red Cross still uses CISM, and the hurricane is weighing heavily on my mind and heart. CISM certainly isn't going to hurt anyone. I'm just wondering if there is something more empowering and efficient.

How do communities heal after a huge tragedy like this? THIS question has been on my mind since the first famous school shooting incident. It's probably time to get to this one. Of course, it would be good if I knew what a healthy community looked like, which I don't have a handle on either.

I know you'll wait with baited breath for my pearls of wisdom on these subjects. Yeah, right! But I'll be glad to spend some time tending to these questions, so stay tuned ;)

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Knitting as Therapy

Get a group of knitters together, in real- or cyberspace, and someone will mention that knitting is therapeutic. I've said it myself. My standard line is that knitting is cheaper than therapy. Except, given the amount of yarn I buy, I could be PLENTY screwed up; I could be getting a lot of therapy for this money.

I'm wondering if it really is therapeutic, though. Last night was my weekly knitting group. Great women. Great talk. Great knitting projects -and I almost finished TWO projects, which is something like a personal record. But it occurred to me in the middle of the event that, whatever your personal issues, they're right there waiting for you in your knitting.

I tend to be a strange combination of intense and driven on the one hand, and scattered and over-committed on the other. (Yeah, it's confusing to me, too.) Sure enough, I knit a little tightly. I have too many started projects for my own emotional equanimity. In my personal and professional lives, I'm good at the beginnings of things. In my knitting, there's a critical point in a project (right around the second sleeve) when the siren song of a new project starts to get really loud. I'm a big picture girl, rather than a detail person. And in knitting, I'll leave a little mistake rather than rip. If it's a sock and the mistake is going to be in my shoe, who cares? If it's a sweater and the mistake is under my arm? Well, if someone sees that, they're too close and need to back away.

Another woman in the group has been making piles of yarn for a fair isle sweater for weeks and weeks. There IS a perfect color combination out there, apparently, and she is such a perfectionist that she can't start the project until it's discovered. Another woman is vey nervous about starting new projects. (I should have this problem.) Sure enough, she casts on too tight. Nothing else is too tight. Just the cast on. Another woman is an editor. Not surprisingly, she'll spend a huge amount of time at the beginning of a project, researching the exactly right cast on, the perfect yarn, the exact measurements.

None of this is pathology. Actually, it's delightful. People in all their magnificent variety. But the possibility remains that knitting is just revealing my issues rather than fixing them.

Now, if I just had money left for therapy. Alas....

Friday, August 26, 2005

The Lovely LilaPod

If you saw or read High Fidelity, you already know how much a playlist can say about a person. That's disconcerting!

Here's the game. Put your iPod in shuffle mode. List the first 10 songs that show up, and no fair leaving out the ones that make you look like a dork. Here are mine for this week.

    Random Ten
  1. Don Messer Medley -Leahy
  2. Gone Gonna Rise Again -John McCutcheon
  3. Allegheny Moon -Anne Murray
  4. I Shall Not Walk Alone -Blind Boys of Alabama
  5. Changes in Latitude; Changes in Attitude -Jimmy Buffett
  6. Cartwheels -Patti Smith
  7. Piano Concerto No. 5 -Beethoven
  8. Wild Women Do -Natalie Cole
  9. Mystic Seacliffs -Bill Whelan
  10. Act 1: Duettino: Viens, Malika -Delibes

Thursday, August 25, 2005

On-line Connections for Progressives

You might want to check this out: Agenda For Justice . It's brand new, so the outcome and trajectory are unknown. But it looks good as a start-up.

And there's this one, too: Idealist . This site is particularly good if you're looking for a social justice-focused job.

The thing I know, and have come very begrudgingly to respect, is how organized and proactive the conservatives have been in marshalling their agenda through the courts, through the Congress, through the society. Progressives aren't going to do that -which is fine. We cherish diversity and process and freedom of inquiry. But surely we can talk to each other and learn from each other. Couldn't we develop an alternative vision for what society might look like and how we might create it?

I keep coming back to Margaret Mead and what has become the mission statement for my life:"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Check these groups out and let me know what you think. Let me know if you find others that progressives might support.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

More Crisis Yoga Thoughts

On a purely physical level, yoga helps to un-kink my body. Multiple days in nasty chairs in hospital waiting rooms does nothing for physical serenity, let me tell you. Yet even in those waiting rooms, there's opportunity for a smidge of yoga. I was known to do seated twists, to use the arm of the chair as a bolster and drape myself over it, even to do a wall-assisted headstand when I thought no one was looking. Unfortunately, the neurosurgeon walked in at that moment and thwacked the door up against me. I'm not sure he's over it yet!

Truth be told, though, I got more mental and spiritual benefits from yoga. I began to wonder if the conscious decision to dedicate my practice was really different from prayer. For some people it might be, but for me it's not. And as a person of faith (however "out there" my faith seems to my co-religionists) prayer comes naturally most of the time. Well, some of the time. But one of those natural prayer times is crisis. Dedicating my practice is just another version of connecting. Even when I'm not physically with my friend, I'm linked to her, and the intentional dedication of my practice to her links both of us to something stronger and bigger than we are.

I'm learning in my yoga practice to detach myself from outcomes. I get so very few, after all! But in my regular life, which has some challenge of course, most outcomes can be controlled through the force of my not-inconsiderable will. Typical marital angst, kid issues, employment strife... that kind of thing. This illness with my friend is one of the rare times when the outcome is absolutely unavailable to my intervention. But that turns out to be irrelevant. Who knew? In yoga, I welcome the posture I have today and invite an improved version into my body (with no certainty that it will ever come); with this illness and recovery, I cherish the Becky we have today and remain hopeful that improvement and progress can still happen. It feels like the same process to me.

And then there are days when nothing goes right. Time for a little grief yoga. I decided that I would live through it if I broke into tears in a public yoga studio. This was a step of some significance for me; I do NOT cry in public. I still haven't actually, but I am okay with the possibility that I might. I needed to know that there was a sanctuary, a place of peace and power, where I could retreat and step outside my own tangled mind for a little while. A normal faithful person would go to church. I'm having a teensy bit of trouble with that just now, so the yoga studio became my sanctuary.

It's been 5 months since my friend was injured. We've moved out of crisis into a long period of uncertainty. There's really nothing I can do -except the next right thing. Just accomplish the task in front of me. And if that task is meditation or triangle posture or headstand, then the world has a tiny smidgeon of peace and focus and balance that weren't there before. And wouldn't peace and focus and balance be important and worthwhile offerings to the world, even if there weren't a crisis?

Other things helped too. My partner, my friends, my on-line community, music, prayer... all of it. But I would not have wanted to face these past few months without my yoga practice.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Ride Like a Girl!

(Thanks to Terry Bicycles for the title; it's their advertising tag line.)

My bike is red and shiny. It has a bell. If it had baskets on the back and a little dog peeking out, you'd confuse me with what's-her-name, the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz. (Mrs. Gulch?? Is that it?) On this bike, I noodle around town -a small feat since this town is the size of your desktop. Or, I go for long rides that take all day. I haven't duplicated my husband's epic rides. Once I tried and failed, so we won't belabor that point. Sigh.

It's an accident that one of my favorite fitness activities is linked to the history of feminism. So, you have Victorian England. (Brace yourself for gross over-simplification.) Women could play croquet, do some archery, and perhaps play a little well-supervised tennis. And someone else chased the missed balls. Okay. But the invention of the "safety bicycle" -the version with a chain and equally-sized wheels- meant that women could go off unchaperoned. Moreover, the bike changed women's clothing. You might be able to play tennis essentially standing still and occasionally waving a racquet around. But you can't throw your leg over a bike, wearing a corset and 40 yards of fabric in your dress.

There's also the world view shift that must have happened. Suddenly women could go somewhere without help. Under their own power, literally and metaphorically. Uh oh. No wonder it was controversial.

Really, I just like my bicycle. I like the wind in my face. I REALLY like the wind at my back. I like the sun on my shoulders. I like the way my muscles feel after a long ride. But it's great to know that, in a weird small way, I'm part of a long line of women cyclists making a new way in the world.

Don't just ride like a girl. Ride like your great-great-grandmother. Blaze a new trail!

Monday, August 22, 2005

Social Work as a Subversive Activity

I love thinking that I’m somehow working against prevailing social structures. If I could figure out why this gives me a giggle, I’d probably know something dreadfully important about myself. In the meantime, though, I will try to validate this personal perspective by recruiting fine upstanding citizens to join me in it. (My mother will be glad to tell you that I was usually the one to instigate trouble, and in just such a manner.)

We know that the “system” doesn’t work -at least not for everybody. Okay, I wouldn’t let a student get away with that kind of grandiose statement. What do I mean? I mean that the patterns that we’ve established -perhaps without a lot of thought- about how people survive in this country, how they keep their noses above water, seem to end up with a lot of people with their noses under the water.

This could, of course, be their fault. They should have learned to swim. However, we all know, if we’re honest, that learning to swim might not have been possible. To leave the metaphor aside for a minute, someone could argue (perhaps even accurately) that we established, for example, a minimum wage law in an attempt to protect laborers from exploitation. Maybe we did -but it’s also true that no one can live on a minimum wage job. Do the math. You’d have to have at least two minimum wage jobs to support a child. And last I heard, poor people only get twenty-four hours per day, just like the rest of us. Moreover, neither of those jobs will carry health insurance with it. So, if there’s even a simple need for the health care delivery system, any fragile financial security would now be gone. Not to mention that you would have lost one of those jobs because you couldn’t go to it because you were in the emergency room with your sick child...or grandmother.... or partner.

So some people have it easy and some don’t. That’s what I mean by the system. And social workers are the ones who say, “No! This isn't okay.” That’s what I mean by subversive. If we’re doing the work well, we’re looking at some hard questions. Why are there so many poor and abandoned people? What is due to workers and to people who are unemployed? What is the relationship between political, social, and economic justice, and between these and the common good? How did it come to be that there is domestic violence, child abuse -that there are missing children and homeless people? These questions might sound boring and pedantic, but they aren’t. They’re fascinating, because you ask and answer them in the context of helping the single individual who’s sitting in front of you. The questions are, however, threatening, because when answered they mean that we aren’t going to be able to live as we’re living now.

We do this work in different ways, of course. Social work can be subversive by overtly trying to change the economic or political structures that oppress. These people lobby in Washington or state capitols. They wear suits and do a lot of good work. Or they do community organizing and wear jeans and no one ever hears their names -and do a lot of good work. Others work with a single person to ensure that there is one fewer victim of those unjust systems. These people work in agencies and don’t earn much money, but can make a difference in the life of a family. And, for a few people, the work entails refusing to participate in the privileges that come to us through the unjust system we’ve put in place. People who do this work are hard to get along with -but they do a lot of good work.

I can think of two people who do this last kind of social work well -and they aren’t social workers. My husband does not drive a car if there is any way to avoid it. He rides his bike to work, to church, to the grocery store -everywhere. For him, this is a moral position. He can afford a car, but not everyone can. He also has very strong feelings about the environmental damage that cars do. The car is, for him, a symbol of an unjust system. He chooses not to de-value his principles and rides his bike. I point out that he doesn’t have to wear panty hose to work, and I drive the car. On this issue, I am less principled than he is.

Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement and witnessed so steadfastly to justice, never voted in her life. I might be misunderstanding her here, but I think she made this choice because she rejected large-scale, nationwide decisions in favor of personal companionship with people who were poor. In most states, homeless people can’t vote. She could have voted, but in solidarity with them, didn’t. I don’t agree with her on this, but let’s review who has had a bigger influence on the life of the nation.

So, when you get ready to burn out -and you will- ask yourself if it’s the job that’s wrong, rather than you. Perhaps you’ve accidentally gotten into a career that is insufficiently subversive. Run! Run like the wind. You can do better than that!

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Going Back to Church -a Definite Maybe

I went to church today. This is a cautious, once burned twice shy, definite-maybe sort of return. But I really am trying. The thing is, this return is emotionally and spiritually difficult. Today is the first Sunday of the academic year, and therefore time to fill out the annual Time and Talent cards. How will I interact with the various ministries of the church as we try to live out our mission in the world? I couldn’t fill it out. I stared at that yellow card and discovered that I’m not quite as “back” as I thought I was.

Here’s why.

As our parish is assigned more and more conservative priests, more and more conservative people start coming to the church. Where were they before? I have NO idea. Were they the ones having little home liturgies, praying for a return to the church they know and love? And the liberals start to be squeezed out -out of staff positions, out of leadership positions, just plain out of the pews. So, people like me are at church in dwindling numbers and with a correspondingly dwindling voice, as well. Can I be in community with these people? I just don’t know yet.

My young-adult children have chosen not to go to church, now that it's their decision to make. At first, that really hurt me. It felt like I'd failed somehow. (Of course, it's all about ME!!!! Sigh....) What I mean is, I wasn't worried about their eternal salvation or anything. I just felt kind of surprised that they were making the same decision for the same (essentially sophomoric) reasons that many young people choose not to go to church. On the other hand, the Catholic Church is a hard sell, even on a good day. A person has to work pretty hard to understand that the stuff that seems strange or even silly, can make sense when you understand the rationale and the principles and the history....

On the other other hand (hey, it's early), sometimes the silly stuff IS just plain silly. The more I listen to my kids and their reasons for not going to church, the more they make sense to me. It is absurd that institutionally we valued priestly power and privacy over children's safety. The new repetitions of the policies re: homosexuality aren't just silly; they're frightening. Exactly why aren't we ordaining women, for crying out loud?

Sometimes when we stay in the circle, we unconsciously start to mimic the language of the people striving to protect their own power. "Gradual, thoughtful change is the way of the church. We have to move carefully. The church has a long history; we'll get around to the changes you seek." Well, God bless the people who step outside the circle and point out the possibility that some of this stuff is just wrong.

When Henri Nouwen talked about the "ministry of absence" he meant more like the dark night of the soul -but maybe we could poetically borrow his phrase and see if there's some use to this migration of people away from the church.

But in the meantime, I’m trying to come back. I just can’t fill out this darn Time and Talent card yet.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Knitted Helmet Liners???

A brief google search suggests that I’m the only person in the world to feel this way. Oh well. My hope is that other people are just afraid to say it loud, but if I’m the only one, I can live with that, too.

Knitters are being encouraged through blogs, local yarn stores, websites, and stitch and bitch groups to knit wool helmet liners for the troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The idea apparently is that the helmet liners that are standard issue are synthetic and therefore not as warm as wool would be. True enough. As a knitter, I’m all about wool. And the desert does get cold at night.

But what is this project really about? Who started it? Why? Did they ask anyone if these things would be used? Did they mention the little tidbit that wool has to be hand washed? How likely is THAT? And, for heaven’s sake, why isn’t the government issuing them? Why are we doing this?

My brain has no trouble understanding the concept that it’s possible to support the troops while simultaneously believing that they are absolutely doing something wrong. I support them, but not what they’re doing. And I know -as the mother of a 21-year-old son and 23-year-old daughter and the sister of a member of the Air Force- that if it were my family out there and that if anyone anywhere could make their lives easier or safer, I would be eternally forever abjectly grateful.

But still…. Why are we being encouraged to do this? It feels to me -with no evidence but deep concerns- that this project has been manufactured to encourage us to buy into this war. I hate conspiracy theories, and here I am spouting one. But honestly. I can’t imagine that there are enough knitters from one end of the country to the other to really tip the balance of support towards the war. But it is hard, once your hands have literally wrapped around the wool and needles and thought about and prayed for the intended recipient for the few hours that it takes to make one of these things, to feel separate from the war.

But you know what? I’m still not going to make one. And I still support the troops and want every (remaining) one to come home safely. And I mourn the ones who will never hug their mothers again. But there are better ways of supporting the troops than this. Surely.

Friday, August 19, 2005

The lovely LilaPod

I have the 6-gig mini iPod, soon to be upgraded, I fear. She's pink and her name is Lila. The weird thing is that I had my iPod for literally months before I got it out of the box. I thought it would be too hard to figure out this new technology. I thought I didn't need it. But, my yoga buddies convinced me that I should give it a shot. And a monster was born! I download music like a fiend. I rip CDs. I make playlists. I'm a hopeless geek, in short.

So, here's the game. (The idea was borrowed from my friend Mike, whose website link is to the left: "Musing's Musings".) Put your iPod in "shuffle" mode. Hit play. Record the first 10 songs that appear -and no fair omitting the ones that make you look like a total dork.

So, here are mine for today:
1. Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin
2. Sweet Chariot, Emmylou Harris
3. Paint the Sky with Stars, Enya
4. Om Namaha Shiva, Shella Chandra
5. Stars Fell on Alabama, Jimmy Buffett
6. O mio babbino caro, Renee Fleming
7. Breton Set, Maggie Sansone
8. For Unto Us a Child is Born, John McCutcheon
9. Air from Suite No. 3 in D Major (Air on a G String), Bach, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
10. To the Moon and Back, Savage Garden

Thursday, August 18, 2005

GW and Faith-Based Initiatives

So, who's poor these days? The Census Bureau tells us that the poverty threshold for a family of 3 is $15, 205. The overall poverty rate stands at 12.5%.

*Race matters a lot. Blacks have a poverty rate of 24.4%

*Location counts. It's better to live north than south. The lowest poverty rate is in Anoka County, Minn. (1.7 percent); Hidalgo County (38 percent) and Cameron County (36.5 percent), both in Texas, have the highest poverty rates in the country. In the north, though, you might want to avoid the Bronx and Philadelphia; they have high poverty rates as well.

*And you probably don't want to be female, particularly not an indifferently-educated one. The poverty rate in 2003 for all adult women was 12.4%; for men, it was 8.9%.

So, it's clear that we have to do something. And the question isn't really whether or not religion and religious people can play an important role in reducing poverty. They already do. Nor is it a question as to whether or not faith-based service organizations should receive financial support for their service work. That's been going on a long time, too. And, as a practicing Catholic, I fervently believe that a robust faith demands addressing issues of social justice. I would say that religion and public affairs necessarily intersect. So, can it really be true that I agree with Bush and support faith-based initiatives?

Well, no.

Bush's "charitable choice" (does he now get to call himself pro-choice?) significantly alters previous practice. In a moment of true weirdness, charitable choice could well result in a net LOSS of revenue to faith-based organizations doing social justice work, due to the parallel deep cuts in community block grants, education, and affordable housing .

Moreover, warnings (frequently FROM the faith-based service agencies) that faith-based initiatives should provide a partnership with effective government anti-poverty programs—and not a substitute—have not been heeded.

To compound the problem, the bulk of support is going to the most conservative evangelical groups that politically support the administration rather than to the most effective faith-based initiatives regardless of political affiliation.

And there’s the endless and important question as to how much witnessing to their faith is acceptable from these well-funded groups. Then, too, what about just hiring practices? Can these funded organizations refuse to hire, say, gay social workers because being gay is, in their estimation, an affront to God’s will? Or could they refuse to serve such a person? Who’s going to provide services to these people falling through newly-formed cracks in the human service array?

So, I would say that in spite of the fact that Mr. Bush tosses the word “faith” around with great abandon, his actual program proposals lack moral vision almost entirely. Our nation deserves better.

And thank all that is holy, I don’t have to face the possibility that I actually agree with Mr. Bush about this!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Crisis Yoga -a multi-day reflection

My life is pretty easy most of the time, and sometimes I even have the presence of mind to be grateful for that. But this is not one of those times. There are layers of chaos these days that a Hollywood director would reject as too improbable to be considered for a movie. It includes political realities that make me sad, afraid, and angry, theological/ecclesiological travesties -which is to say, my church is falling apart and this matters a lot to me-, and a personal crisis involving a desperately ill friend -naturally, the friend closest to me in the world and with whom I could commiserate most freely regarding all these other crises. Without being too grandiose about it, I could be spiraling into a crisis of grief that hardly bears looking at. It’s too ferocious and dark to be contemplated. (okay, so that WAS grandiose. It’s also how it feels.)

If I can make myself walk to my mat, yoga helps me deal with the anger and fear -not perfectly mind you, but it helps. But there’s more than that, too. A years-long sustained yoga practice has actually made a difference; I’ve worked “muscles” that help me stay focused, balanced, and calm even when I’m not on my mat. Please don’t think I’ve been perfect -or even particularly good- at responding to this latest crisis, but I do know that I’m better than I would have been otherwise.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Why I Tri

I’m probably the slowest, fattest triathlete you’ll ever meet. OK, truth.... I’ve completed one triathlon and I wasn’t last. So I guess I can’t be the slowest. And I’m really just a little fat. So, there. But really... why would a 47 year old, short, pudgy woman want to do this to herself?

It’s not about the race. It’s about the community of athletes. It’s about seeing myself as part of that community. It’s about personal improvement. More power to you people actually racing. But I’m not one of you. I’d be perfectly happy if a group of like-minded people decided to swim, then bike, then run one fine, sunny day. And if we waited for the slowest person to finish and if we discussed our children, grandchildren and life partners -or lack thereof- on the run, that would be great, too.

Operating on the principle that we become more efficient at the things we practice, the group would gradually improve en masse. But we’d also respect the fact that, on any given day, a different person might be feeling strong and could draft us on the bike ride. Today it might be me. Tomorrow it could be you.

Perhaps I’m a dilettante. I’m far from insulted by that claim. Today I’m doing things I couldn’t do a year ago. Next year at this time, I’ll be doing still more new things. I might be faster at this running business. Or perhaps I’ll have added diving or figure skating or I’ll have mastered the third series of ashtanga yoga (highly unlikely, since I haven’t mastered the first) or taken up sky-diving (even less likely)..

We are beautifully and mysteriously made. We are capable of so much more than we think.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Much of my human-services career has been devoted to people in emergencies. Not for me the long-term therapy approach or even the cash-assistance approach that passes for social work in much of the culture. No, thank you. I want to deal with people who have hit rock bottom -the people for whom the goal is merely to return to the situation that preceded the catastrophe. Never mind that the previous situation might itself have been terrible. Emergency work like this is the “hands” to cultural principles such as “ people shouldn’t freeze to death because they have no home.”

As a student of social work, I naively assumed that this work would consist of heroic rescue stories. How I would love to tell you that I have talked people down from bridges and tall buildings, or that my efforts alone allowed people to resume complete and well-integrated lives. Be very suspicious of someone who tells you many of those stories, because that’s not what social work looks like. It plays out on the ground by making huge urns of colossally bad coffee in those silver, institutional pots that only burn coffee and listening to people tell their stories. And listening... and listening... and listening.

For this I went to graduate school??? Absolutely. Have you ever visited a woman who has very recently given birth? I used to laugh -gently, I promise- at those women. They have this need to tell you exactly what every contraction was like, what every nurse said, what it felt like to push... until the story takes as long as the delivery itself. And she never tires of this story, telling it -compulsively almost- to every person who walks into the room. And all the stories are exactly the same. Couldn’t you tell a completely convincing one just from the stories you’ve heard? I laughed at those women, that is, until I was one -and I heard myself doing exactly the same thing. I knew I was being boring, but I could not stop myself. It was very peculiar.

And then I decided to be patient with myself and any other new mothers I would meet in the future. Child birth is such an overwhelming, life-changing experience that we have to talk about it. We learn what we think about it by listening to ourselves tell the story. The people listening to us allow us the opportunity to make meaning from these strange new circumstances.

And there you have the parallel to social work. Perhaps there has been a flood. Water tears through a person’s home, taking all possessions: clothes, furniture, toys, but also baby pictures, wedding dresses, and needlework projects not yet completed. The water takes the necessary and the sentimental, with no regard as to how much we need or care for those possessions. So, how best to help?

Much of social work relies on the assumption that there is a root problem. Homelessness, for example, can be seen as a symptom, rather than the illness itself. (And yes, I’ve chosen the metaphor advisedly.) Of course, we’re not going to let people freeze to death, so good hearted folks establish shelters and, as a country, you and I minimally fund them through our tax dollars. However, in the last few years (since Ronald Reagan was president, at least), the task of the shelter has been to figure out what problem within the individual caused the homelessness, fix that problem, and voila.... no more homelessness. Pity it didn’t work that way, but that’s the subject of another day.

However, not even punitive politicians can claim that the people who lose their homes in, say, a flood of the Mississippi River, do so because they are, at root, flawed people. How best to help now? Get a shovel and start digging through the rubble? You bet! And make some coffee, because there are going to be stories to tell. While you’re digging, these flood victims will, like new mothers, tell the same story again and again and again. You’ll begin to think that every drop of water must be recounted. All of your graduate school training will be reduced to you making sympathetic noises -and shoveling. People will come to their conclusions, in their own time; they are, in fact, the experts on their own lives. Meaning will come from the mud, if we gently facilitate the process -or at least stay out if its way.

The astute re-locator of mud will soon notice that it’s usually women and children who need to tell their stories. Men don’t do this much -or they do it differently anyway. Now, I should be clear that I have ideas about how a society should be run and how gender should and shouldn’t play into that. And I have rules about how, for instance, my family will conduct itself with regard to gender roles. However, I have to hold those rules and hopes in abeyance in the face of these people’s pain. Remember how bad things are. It will take some psychic and physical strength to keep people on this side of sanity -and men are encultured to be stoic and to fix things. There’s probably no harm in it -just this once.

But, know this. It will be the women who, years from now, tell the story of the great flood to their grandchildren. One reads in cultural anthropology that it is usually the women of a culture who tell, keep, and teach the morality and fairy tales -the myths. These myths are not falsehoods, but rather such profound truths that they can only be told through story. Read any parables, lately -just for an example? As social workers we’re not ghost writers of these myths. We’re more like the sounding board or the best of all possible editors -the one who won’t stop until your story reflects the most authentic you. Does this sound right? What about this idea? I’m unclear what you meant here.

And I have good news. While it is possible to learn to do this work really well, you can not mess it up. I know, because I have done absolutely everything wrong that can be done wrong -and the process still worked. As a young worker in a homeless shelter, at roughly the time in my life when I also had two small children, I found myself trying to listen to young Ray. I still don’t know his technical diagnosis -some unusual variant of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, probably. Whatever it was, though, it made him take forever to do anything. He would stay in the bathroom for, literally, hours just to wash his hands. He would repeat the same sentence again and again, even if we prompted him to move forward. And don’t get me started about eating; that could be a week-long drama. One night, he was mugged -not badly hurt but very shaken up. He needed to tell the story. You begin to see the problem.

I had probably been up late at night with one or both of my children. Ray’s stories were endless and told in an absolute monotone. I remember distinctly that we were sitting at the kitchen table. Coffee, though, was not available; it was too expensive for us to purchase very often. (Coffee, you will discover, is essential to the process.) I fell asleep while he was telling his story. I mean literally asleep. Not the kind of asleep that can be hidden. How embarrassing -not to mention rude. But done is done. It happened, Ray noticed, and we moved on. The point is that he came to his own conclusions without me. They might have been better conclusions had I participated in forming them -but probably not. They certainly would have happened faster. I’m sure you will never make a mistake as flagrant as banging your head on the table when you fall dead asleep with a client in the room. But even that did not destroy the power of story telling. Ray hadn’t wanted to do all the work himself; that’s why he sought me out in the first place. But he proved that he could do it, if there was no alternative. Or if the alternative was drooling on her napkin, dreaming of children who slept through the night.

So, just my limited experience of the world has white, over-educated, middle class moms telling stories to make meaning. It has blameless victims of natural disaster telling stories to make meaning, and it has homeless people, supposedly responsible for their own misfortune, telling stories to make meaning.

It seems, then, that when the rules are suspended, when things don’t make sense any more, we all start telling stories. We “get it” by listening to it. We process new facts and information by weaving them into a tale. The social worker, or any helper, friend, or relative, at best only facilitates that process -listening for themes, checking for loopholes, reflecting it all back to the story-teller for confirmation. The end result, though, is so much more than we would think. In the end, we get a life that makes sense, even in the face of disorienting experience. Maybe, we’re heroic rescuers after all. Now, if we could only get some decent coffee...

Why on earth do I want a blog?

There are many, many things I'm interested in that aren't part of my professional (such as it is) life. I keep meaning to take the time to stop and think about them, really puzzle them out. But that day never comes. I just randomly decided that today is that day.

Well, it wasn't totally random. I just got a brand spanking new haircut; I'm re-inventing. So what the heck. This will be my spot to think about these things as well as my public commitment to do so.

Here's what I'm thinking:
Sundays: Catholicism, spirituality, meditation....
Mondays: social work, feminism, other social issues that spring to mind
Tuesdays: fitness, because my brain got worn out with yesterday's blogging and now my body needs attention
Wednesdays: yoga
Thursdays: political ranting
Fridays: random 10 songs from my beloved iPod. I'm SO in love with my iPod! books I'm reading; movies I've seen. That kind of thing.
Saturdays: knitting

And of course, I reserve the right to post whatever else I like. Something could happen in the big wide world that triggers an actual thought in my mind.

Why on earth would anyone care? That, I don't have an answer to. Probably no one does. I'm okay with that.