Finding North

Change/Transformation, Hard Stuff, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, service, Uncategorized

Today, my life re-oriented itself and I am renewed in purpose.  I had the enormous fortune to spend some time with a friend – one of those friends who is supportive but directive and says the really crucial stuff, sometimes the really hard stuff.  It was the equivalent of someone taking me by the shoulders and saying  “Look, what happened was painful and unexpected, and this path doesn’t get any easier.  you need to learn how to apply some of your skills to yourself, to be more objective about your successes and setbacks, and recognize your value and purpose. you are prepared and skilled and talented and your heart is big enough – time to move forward again.”

And she’s right.  What I’d forgotten, what my time at DOC had hacked away, is my desire to be of service.  For almost two decades, the question that has driven me is “how can I best be of service?”  I haven’t always known this question was pushing me onward, although the pattern of seeking some answer is obvious in my choices of education, career, and interests.  And to be clear, I’m not entirely thrilled about having discovered the question.  I’ve been fighting the knowledge for a while, wanting some acknowledgement for what I’d already done, the service I’d already given.

I was so tired, so exhausted, so beaten down by the endless need and casual, normalized brutality of the prison system that I couldn’t tolerate the thought of more service.  I couldn’t tolerate giving more of myself and getting nothing in return.  The final defeat was when I was being targeted by DOC.  My employer never acknowledged my service, my value, or that they cared about my situation or me.  That was crushing.  To have worked for them for so long, doing such difficult work, and be pushed aside, so casually and thoughtlessly, was a terrible experience.  My desire to serve was profoundly wounded, and I couldn’t imagine ever putting myself back into that arena.

Unfortunately, purpose doesn’t really work that way.

Even if my conscious mind couldn’t bear to think of being in service, the rest of me knew the deal.  I focused on private industry, found a job, and all was well with the world.  Until two weeks ago when, out of the blue, with no explanation, they let me go.  I was thrown into the perpetual chaos, confusion, and uncertainty of looking for work, again, in a very tight market.

I was also faced, AGAIN, with the question of what did I want for myself, what kind of life did I want to live?  Not once, but twice in a six month period I found myself asking the same round of questions, looking at the same batch of answers, and questioning my sanity.  Why would this happen twice?  Why would I be forced into this process twice, in such a short period of time?  What the fuck was I supposed to learn?  Sweet baby christmas, how much reflection was I supposed to do before the light came on?

Of course, I was far too close to see the answer, even though it was probably obvious to everyone else.  Everything in my life is about being of service.  Hell, every single idea I’ve had about starting my own business is based in service to others through education, creativity, or advocacy.  My reading, my art, my writing, it’s all grounded in the desire to serve, to help others be the best they can.

I was hoping for a different answer.  I tried to redirect my ambition in other directions, but it literally didn’t fit.  My ego, my intellect, wants a bigger presence, accolades, acknowledgment, praise, the recognition I see going to others who do work I admire. But that’s not why they do the work and, ultimately, not why I will continue doing that work.

We do it because it’s who we are.  We came here to serve, to be of service, to lift others and, in turn, be lifted.  As Gandhi said “we find ourselves in service to others.” This clarity doesn’t mean my desire for recognition has magically disappeared, it just means it isn’t driving the bus anymore.  I’ve found my north again.

Nothing-Liberates-Our-Greatness-Like-The-Deisre-To-Help-The-Desire-To-Serve.

 

 

Is it time

Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Social Justice, Uncategorized

to give up yet?  Why not?  Why shouldn’t I give up in a world so full of hatred and cruelty that three heavily armed men would go to a place where developmentally disabled people go for help and support?   Why didn’t I give up after Sandy Hook?  After the close to 1000 mass shootings since 20 kindergarten children and six adults were murdered?

I don’t know.

Other than committing suicide, I don’t know what giving up would mean.  Should I cash in whatever I have, get a little money and move to some small island that will probably be below sea level in another dozen years?  Move to a small village in northern Canada or Alaska, knowing it’ll warm up in the next dozen years?  Move somewhere in the US that’s off the grid, knowing that there will likely be condos and a Starbucks next door in the next dozen years?

I don’t know what I expected, but I know living in a country where anyone can arm themselves for combat and take off on a killing spree in a social services building wasn’t it.  I hear all the time that people are infinitely complex, that life is hard, and that simply getting up each day is a triumph.  Days like today don’t feel like triumphs.  They feel like massive, horrific failures.

We have failed, as a nation, to provide any sort of reasonable example of what it means to be human.  I realize this is a blanket condemnation but our track record on gun violence and mass shootings, unacknowledged, unaddressed domestic terrorism, and the growing list of other acts of physical aggression and violence leave little doubt.

I don’t know if I have hope for this world, or for humanity as a species.  I’m not sure we deserve the gift of hope.

5234-hope

Conversations with Life, #3

Hard Stuff, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Peace/Conflict, Social Justice, Uncategorized, Writing

Life,

It’s M again and today, I want to kill someone, or die.  No. Neither of those is true, but I’m consumed, eaten with rage at another round of mass murders, this time impacting people I know and care about.  All these mass gun murders deeply touch my soul, but this was in my home state, in my college community, and it punched me in the heart.

I consider myself a reasonable person, compassionate, and willing to see all sides of an issue, but I’m done.  I’m done trying to understand the perspective of people who seem to not care that guns are used daily to murder and terrorize hundreds and thousands of innocent people in this country.  I’m done with the bullying and threatening and open-carry intimidation when legislators and citizens try to get even minimal gun control laws on the books.

There is no reason here.  There is no attempt to meet in the middle, no attempt to understand suffering, or even agreement that sometimes, sometimes, an individual’s right to carry a weapon is trumped by another individual’s right to simply live.

How do I move forward so gorged with hatred and fear?  All I feel capable of doing is violence.

Dear M,

There is no reasoning with fear.  And there is no way to understand another person’s particular, personal terror.  There is also nothing that says you have to try.  It is your choice to try or not, and there are consequences either way. Your ability to move through this time may feel compromised and it is up to you to take the necessary steps to help yourself cope in a way that aligns with who you are.

You are not hatred. You are not rage or fear or abject, gibbering terror.  None of you are but many of you don’t remember that.  Many of you live in that profound, unconscious state of terror every day.  It is exhausting for every single one of you living on that planet, but that is the nature of the human condition, and your greatest individual challenge.

Remembering that you are NOT a being made of fear, cowering in a darkened cave is the hardest act and the greatest.

Always,

Life

Graging?

Change/Transformation, It's Personal, Laughter, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I’ve been trying to think of a word that combines aging with grace, and came up with the post title – graging.  Now that I see it, it could also be a combination of “rage” and “gray”, which are also part of aging, although not exactly what I had in mind.  It’s a weird word, a fake word, clumsy and ugly.  Maybe it’s the perfect word to describe how most of us increase our years, and all those moments when we say to ourselves “Is this what it feels like to be X yrs old?  I don’t feel X yrs old.”

Isn’t is amusing how the only people talking about the process of aging are those of us who are “of a certain age?”  When we’re in our twenties and thirties, we are most definitely NOT thinking about our upcoming years of graging, except in terms of retirement funds.  I know this is true because I’m close enough to my thirties that I can remember NEVER thinking about what my forties would be like!

I think it’s a psychological development.  We hit some level in our biological development and bam!  we’re suddenly pondering the nature of life, our contributions and legacy, our vulnerability, and what the end of our lives might be like.  It’s a curious paradox that our society and culture disregard our elders, fetishize youth, and yet every. single. one of us will grow old and die.  It’s one of the very few absolute givens in human existence – we, you, I, will grow older and eventually die.

I’m writing this piece more as a way to inject some humor in this process for myself, because I can’t even describe how vulnerable and alone and afraid I feel sometimes.  I can’t because thinking about it too much crushes my spirit and darkens my light, and I need a way to acknowledge my fears without letting them own me.  So maybe the word “graging” will now symbolize those parts of growing older I find both familiar and uncomfortable – the fear and anger, loneliness and uncontrollable changes – things we all struggle with most of our lives.

Naming a thing makes it less scary, in part because it makes it more real.  Perhaps the real key to growing in grace is realizing and accepting that all of these parts are inevitable and unavoidable, and that the best I can do is be kind to myself when they show up.  Kindness and grace don’t combine easily into a fun word, probably because they’re both so deserving of separate attention. There are no shortcuts to either of these states – they take courage, work, heart, and intention.

I feel better now.  Graging over.

Conversations with Life, #1

Creative, It's Personal, Life, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

Life,

My name is M and I’m a middle-aged single woman who chose not to have children.  I have a wonderful group of friends, work I care about and am good at, access to lots of social activities, a living wage job with an ethical employer, and a safe, beautiful place to live.  As I type all those things, I wonder why the hell I’m writing you, but I’m doing it anyway because I feel trapped and dissatisfied and I need guidance.

Feeling trapped and dissatisfied, in turn, makes me feel like a bad, ungrateful person so let’s say right now, for all future conversations, I’m grateful for what I have, but I want more.  I crave more, and I’m trying to create a path that integrates gratitude and desire.

How do I do that?

Dear M,

I don’t know.  No one does.  All the big brains and hearts and voices have been trying to figure it out since you had more than one cell to rub together.  Remember, I’m only an anthropomorphic idea you decided to write to, I don’t know much beyond what you know, but I’ll offer you this image:

When I look at a person, I don’t see the physical body that you see.  What I see is a light surrounded by an infinite number of intricate layers – like those Chinese lanterns with all the patterns?  Those are all meshed together – thick, thin, lacy, solid, dark, light, permeable, fluid, rigid, and so on.  The light shines out, but it has to make its way through all those layers, through the little chinks and cracks where the gaps line up.

Every so often, everything lines up perfectly and a lot of light gets out – that’s when you get those transcendent pieces of creation or messages that endure and survive and inspire for hundreds and hundreds of years.

I’m telling you this because the desire you feel is to shine more of that light.  You crave the sensation of having more and more clear space for that inner light to expose itself, to shine on the world around you.  It’s what all humans want – it’s the reason you are here.

There is no difference in experiencing immense gratitude for the light that already shines, and desiring more of the same.  That desire is what leads you forward, and inspires you to be more fully yourself.  And that is where the magic happens.

Always,

Life

Mental illness or unchangeable habits?

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Obstacles/Challenges, Uncategorized

One of the most confusing and troubling aspects of my work is differentiating between what I can work with and what I can’t.  This shows up most often when students are starting to struggle and I have to determine whether it’s learned behavior, or something deeper and more serious.  If they are running into old, dysfunctional patterns of self-sabotage, there’s a solid chance I can help them, if they’re willing to do the work.  If it seems that I’m dealing with undiagnosed or untreated mental illness, there’s often nothing I can do until they self-destruct.

The level of ambiguity and lack of clarity in these situations is jaw-dropping.  I often have nothing to go on except my knowledge of the student, and my intuition.  DOC is extremely limited in what it can do, or offer, with regard to mental health and illness, and I have access to none of that information.  If an inmate isn’t an immediate danger to herself or others, they are treated as if they are “stable”.  If an inmate doesn’t have a previous mental illness diagnosis, the chances of getting one while incarcerated are almost nonexistent, which means no treatment.

DOC offers little cognitive therapy and that only to the most severely mentally ill inmates. Those who can get mental health services (a minority of inmates) are largely treated using DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), not cognitive therapy.  This means their counselors help them deal with their immediate situation – strengthening their coping and rational thinking skills.  While this is necessary, it does nothing to relieve the underlying reasons why they continue to make bad decisions, or the chemical and biological causes for depression, mood swings, and erratic behavior.

About a year ago, I had a student in her early 20s.  She’d gotten caught up in some shady stuff her mother was doing and ended up getting a seven-year sentence when she was 18 and a first time offender.  Her mother got only five years, but that’s another discussion.  I accepted this young woman into my program late, when another student dropped.  The New Student (NS) had to do a lot of work in a short period of time to catch up and she did – we were all excited and pleased because she was off to a good start.

She managed to maintain herself for a while, but then we (my program clerks and I) started to notice a cycle of behavior.  She consistently had trouble with acting out while under stress, even with extensive coaching and new tools, and about every six to eight weeks, she’d have a major blow up.  We’d have a debrief, a big discussion, create a plan with specific goals and steps, and discuss consequences.  This happened maybe three times and when the cycle began again, I knew something had to change.

I don’t remember exactly what happened, but NS was headed toward another blowup and, hoping to stop the cycle, I brought her into my office to talk.  Because she’d started the program late, she was still finishing up the first module after the rest of the class had graduated and gone.  She was the only student working, and we were prepping for the next class and finishing up interviews.  She only had another three to four weeks max until she’d be done with the entire course, and I had hopes we could help her hold herself together long enough to finish.

One of my clerks was with us, and the discussion progressed.  This time, though, something was different.  NS had a harder edge, was more aggressive than she had been and before I knew it, she had slammed her head backward into the wall.  It wasn’t hard, but it was on purpose and far, far beyond the norm of acceptable behavior.  I immediately called security and two officers came.  One, a calm woman who has since retired, stayed in the room and the other, also steady and calm, stood right outside.

I continued my conversation with NS, hoping she would de-escalate and pull herself together, so I wouldn’t have to see her walked out in handcuffs.  She managed, but not until I told her she could either throw herself on the floor and have a real tantrum, or go back out and continue working like a grown adult.  I was not sure what choice she would make and almost expected her to throw herself on the ground and start punching the floor. She decided to go back to her seat, so I let her and left further conversation for another time.  I didn’t feel that anything was resolved, but I hoped her choice was a good sign.

It might have been, but making one right choice wasn’t enough to stop her from completely sabotaging everything she’d worked so hard to build.  Within a week, she’d gotten into a serious fight with one of my newly chosen students and both were taken to Medium, to Segregation.  She was lucky she wasn’t beaten more badly, and I suppose I dodged a bullet with the incoming student.  But the whole incident was horrible and it felt like all that work with her had just swirled down the drain, mixed with the blood running from her cut face.

To this day, I don’t know if her behavior was a sign of a mental illness, or an attention-seeking behavior so deeply ingrained she just couldn’t pry it loose.  I’ll probably never know, but it drove home for me that every single person I interact with has a complex, hidden self that I know nothing of, but that influences and permeates every interaction, choice, and behavior.  While this behavior seems shocking, it isn’t.  Teachers all over the world have to deal with students who are violent, aggressive, sick, mentally unstable, and mentally unwell all the time.

For me, this is another demonstration that these women are human beings.  They work and find ways to deal with the issues that come up for them because they feel they have no choice.  To give in and act out in their old, self-destructive ways isn’t an option for most of them any more, so they manage, then take another step forward. Given their limited access to resources in such a stressful and negative environment, I also believe they have the strongest desire to change their lives that I’ve ever seen.

Behind the Curtain

Change/Transformation, It's Personal, Laughter, Leadership, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I’ve been interested in leadership – theory and practice – and in various styles of leadership for many years.  Recently, I’ve been exploring the structure of Servant Leadership and have found that most of what I teach my students falls directly into this framework.  Not only do I take a Servant Leadership approach, I teach them to be Servant Leaders.  I don’t discuss it in those terms, but I train them in listening, compassion, kindness, supporting others, empathy, foresight, and care for the world.  I’m training them, hoping to seed the world with these budding humans.

It’s amusing, the internal conflicts that arise from considering myself a Servant Leader, amusing and sometimes aggravating.  As an ambitious, intelligent, and talented professional, I want credit for my work – I want to be acknowledged for my accomplishments, my dedication, and my passion.  But Servant Leadership is about leading from behind and beside, commitment to the growth of others, and not so much about being the star.

So where does this leave me?  Struggling between wanting acknowledgement and internalizing an approach that focuses on strengthening and developing others, it seems.  But even as my internal conflict sputters along, I know that I have chosen the right path, and that my desire for personal glory is fleeting compared to building resilient, compassionate human beings.  If asked how I manage my craving for personal acknowledgment with continuing to work as a servant leader, I don’t know what I would say.

Even writing a blog post about it feels uncomfortable – calling attention to myself in an un-servant-like way.  But it is true – I consider myself in this way and most of my decisions about what to do and how to do it come from this paradigm.  Writing this post feels awkward and uncomfortable, as it should.  I’m acknowledging my sticky, prickly human nature, and bringing her out from behind the curtain.