Sunday, May 21, 2017

How We Can NOT Panic When We Realize Life is Random and Everything Is Totally Out of Our Control

At the beginning of the ending of my marriage I took a trip alone to Sedona, Arizona.  It was one of those symbolic things that divorcing people do...sort of supposed to be self-care and also "I can do this" empowerment (but I was white knuckling it the whole way).  One of the hardest parts for me, I remember, was not wearing my wedding ring.  I got on the plane, sat next to a family (of course...rub it in my face, World), and I thought, "What are they going to think of me?!"  Like I was a serial killer - a middle aged lady with no wedding ring on.  "How scandalous!  What is her deal?," I imagined might be some of their thoughts.  Wearing a wedding ring is a story to the world.  It puts you in a box of people we know something about.  "She (or he) is married.  Someone thought they were nice enough to marry.  They must be pretty nice.  They probably have kids.  They are probably a normal person."   I felt exposed and vulnerable without my wedding ring on.

Anybody who has ever lost a person, a job, a relationship, moved, lost one's health, even lost files on the computer (which seems upon writing it, silly, compared to the other losses I mentioned, but a loss these days, nonetheless) - deeply understands that loss makes us feel vulnerable.  I know a man who said that losing a family member at a young age introduced randomness into his life.  And what feels more vulnerable than the intimate knowledge that bad things that happen are often random?  That we are now exposed to randomness and vulnerable to pain at any time?

Or more truthfully, that we were vulnerable the whole time before the loss and didn't truly know it.

 And that's the crux of what I'm wanting to share today - it's that we are always vulnerable and that perhaps there is a healthy humility we can cultivate that will help us in our day to day life, but also when the chips are down.

12-Step Programs like Al-Anon and AA begin with a concept of being humble (the word they use is 'powerless', but I interpret it this way - "Alcohol is bigger than we are."  I think the idea ripples out from there and is more expansive than addiction  -  "My grief is bigger than I am, alone" or "My depression is bigger than I am, alone", "My rage is bigger than I am, alone"  "My cancer is bigger than I am, alone", "My resentments is bigger than I am, alone", "My child's anxiety is bigger than I am, alone."

I'll give you an example of a time I wasn't humble in the face of something big.   I was a couple years into my work in hospice and had gained enough experience to just begin to think I 'knew something.'  I visited a patient for the very first time - it was a beautiful late Spring day and the house was near one of the city parks.  It was a changeable weather day, though and a storm would soon be rolling in - tornadoes were predicted.  I met the adult daughter, who was taking care of her father.  He was bedbound, but rousable.  She could still get him to the bedside commode - he was strong enough, when awake, to help her a little. But she wondered how long he had, really.  Her brother would like to come in and say goodbye, but he lived out of town.  Did she need to call him to come in today, she wondered?  I listened to the man's breathing - it was not rattling.  He breathed shallowly, but at regular intervals.  His color didn't look terrible.  I said, "While I can't be sure, I don't think your dad will die today.  I think you would be okay to wait another day for your brother to come in."  Her dad died within 24-hours and her brother had not driven in from out of town.  I felt terrible and responsible and I felt ashamed.  I talked with one of our 'old' hospice nurses about that - one of my favorites - a salty, hilarious Irish lady.  She said, "Katy, that is hubris.  To guess when someone will die is hubris."  I never did it again.  Not that way, anyway.  I always told my patients and families that story, too.  Death is bigger than me.  Death will always be bigger than me.

I am grateful every day and for so many reasons that I had the opportunity to work in hospice.  Selfishly, I realize that through experiencing and observing so much loss, I was somehow that little bit more open to the changes I've needed to make since that time.

What do we do after we wake up to that fact that we are small and vulnerable?  Do we just give up, roll into the fetal position on the kitchen floor and cry?  Yes!  Well, yes, we do that for a little while and then we get up and we ask for help.

Many things are bigger than me and I am humble before them.  But, I also have a team.  I have a loving, imperfect, crazy team of friends and family and poets and church people and neighbors and for me, even God (though I know not everybody goes in for that.)  And, while you might think I'm extroverted and so sure, it's easy to ask for help.  No, I'm only kind of extroverted, and I'm also kind of introverted, so it's not always easy to ask for help.  Plus, I'm a perfectionist and a caregiver and all these other things that you might know about me from reading this blog.

But now, when I don't know what to do or my brain is like the old 'bird's nest' in my fishing pole - a mess of confusion, I am sure about something.  I am sure that I need to ask for help.  So, I ask myself this:  "Who knows more about this than I do?"  "Who might have some insight into this?"  "Who is a good listener?" "Who will encourage me?"  "Who lifts my burdens?"  And then I make a phone call (or three) or send an email or say a prayer.  And more or less, this is what I say, "Will you help me?"

This doesn't mean everything gets wrapped up with a pretty bow.  My kid's say one of my negative personality traits is my timing and bluntness - I am honest and blunt with them and sometimes tell them some cold hard fact of life right before bedtime, and they are like, "Mom, your timing sucks."  So here's my cold hard fact, and much like I'd say to my kids.  Shit happens.  So, ask for help before shit happens, that way when it does, you don't have to overcome your pride and false ideas of control to do so.

And then, you will get help.  And sometimes you'll get help, but it won't be in the form or timing you want it.    Be humble and ask for help anyway.  It will help you remember that we are all in this together.  And it will help you remember something else, I think you know, deep deep down, if you really let yourself listen.

It's all going to be okay.

Monday, May 1, 2017

A Happy Life? Close Relationships...yes, please. Jerry, thank you.

The other day I posted an article from Inc.on my personal facebook about a groundbreaking, Harvard study, following the emotional health and well-being of hundreds of men (primarily) .  It's a pretty famous study, mostly because very few studies span 75 years - literally, generations.  Here's a link to the actual study (not the article I posted on facebook.) 
Harvard Second Generation Study

The catchy part that makes this fodder for TED talks and facebook feeds is what looks like the conclusion (at least for this generation):  it's not wealth, success, fame or power that makes people happy, content or healthy over a lifetime.  It's the quality of their relationships. 

After I posted the Inc. article, a friend responded to the link on my timeline, enthusiastically agreeing and saying, to paraphrase - Yes!  When we find that special person in our life, who we can tell everything to and who loves and supports us no matter what...that is the key to happiness! 

I found myself with two totally different reactions to this innocent and energetic reply -

1) My therapist self, says No, let me explain more:  It's not finding the one elusive soulmate (if that even exists) - it's about cultivating genuine connectedness, affection and support in our varied relationships.  Friendships, sibling relationships, the person we serve on the non-profit board with, our parents - all of these relationships can be of high quality and emotional intimacy.  This broad, loving community is what makes a healthy and happy life. 

2)  My emotional, non-logical self.  My 'Jeez I Just Got Divorced and I'm Starting Life Over Self,' says - Oh my gosh, what about that one special person?!?  I don't have one.  What if I die miserable and unfulfilled.  What do I make of this soulmate thing?  Should I get more cats or is that like a sign that I TOTALLY WILL die alone?!

Ok, so that 2) kind of jumps to conclusions and I have to reign her in.  But who can blame her.  We live in a culture of the romantic myth.  I don't mean to say that all romance is a myth, but what I mean to say is that most people I know (not all), have the hope of going through this life with someone they love.  And in pursuing this goal, we often put the cart before the horse.  Or maybe we have the horse and the cart, but we don't keep it hooked up in working order.

To that end, here's another something - the most downloaded article from the New York Times in 2016

Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person

One of the things Alain de Botton (a teacher and philosopher) says is, "Partly, it’s because we have a bewildering array of problems that emerge when we try to get close to others. We seem normal only to those who don’t know us very well. In a wiser, more self-aware society than our own, a standard question on any early dinner date would be: “And how are you crazy?”"

He's very funny to listen to and read, and I'd also like to flip his question the other way.  In our search for emotional intimacy, I think the most important question is actually, "Do I know how I am crazy and can I convey that honestly to someone else?" 

Part of the reason our relationships - be they friendships, romances, marriages, boss/employee relationships, may not feel as fulfilling as they might is because we don't know our own selves well enough to say what we want, what we need, or who we are.

I work on this in my own life.  Recently, I called my sister with some problem or other.  My sister is a wonderful fixer - she is solution focused and creative.  She has a passionate way of communicating.  When I called her, I prefaced the problem - "I need to talk about something, but I need you to just be gentle and not offer any solutions.  I just need support in this moment."  She was awesome.  She was a cheerleader.  She was a listener.  And she was gentle.  Is was just what I needed in that moment.

I think we need to stop questing for others to be perfect for us and we need to stop expecting ourselves to be perfect in relationships.  If most people would like to look back on their lives from a ripe old age and feel that life was meaningful, more or less content, and sometimes even happy, I 100% believe that will correlate to the quality of our relationships.  But the first quality relationship is the one with ourselves.  How well do we know ourselves and can we share that without shame in our closest relationships?  Not only that, do we allow room in our lives to grow and change or for our partner, or siblings, or parents or children to grow and change.  Certainly what we need and who we are at age 30 is different in some way(s) than who we are at age 65. 

To wrap up, and share a little more that makes me crazy in the Alain de Botton kind of way is that I have a part of me that is totally sappy and sentimental and at the same time a part of me that is very subversive and even cynical.  Some things that masses of other people seem to like can totally get on my nerves.  Like the movie Forrest Gump.  Or Jerry Maguire.  I hated Jerry Maguire with a passion (except for Cuba Gooding, Jr.).  Remember Tom Cruise said, "You complete me" to Rene Zellweger?  I did not find that romantic at all.  So to that end, mostly when I write these blogs, I want there to be some measure of thought-provoking and some measure of 'let's not take ourselves too seriously.'  So here you go:  Get to know yourself and keep the lines of communication open with yourself and those you love.  Speak truthfully to people who are important to you.  And be wary, very wary of anyone who says this to you: 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Strange Lady Rubs My Leg and Some Things I've Learned About Touch

On Thursday last week, I drowsily sat in a large, afternoon seminar in Portland, Oregon.  I was in a room full of strangers taking in a lecture, What Is Complicated Grief.   The lady I sat down beside appeared to be about 70 years old, a very 'put together' looking lady.  I guessed her to be from the South, which she was - Atlanta.  We peaceably listened to our speakers.  About a half hour in, I felt a hand on my knee and it was not mine.  It was hers.  Yes, her hand was on my knee and she began gently caressing my leg. 

Here are the thoughts that went through my mind, in order. And thinking these thoughts took about .5 seconds.
1)  This is strange
2)  We are in a 'touchy feely' profession - maybe the topic is causing her to need some connection?
3)  Am I being molested?!?
4) I think she's asleep

There are so many moments in my life, when I feel like Steve Martin from The Jerk.  When he is working as an attendant at the gas station and a sniper begins shooting at him.  The bullets hit the oil cans behind him.  Punctured of course, they begin spilling out on the ground.  "These cans are defective!" he cries.  "There's something the matter with these cans!"  It takes him an inordinate amount of time to figure out that SOMEONE IS SHOOTING AT HIM. 

I feel like I'm a slow learner, too.  After all "the logic" I went through to reach my conclusion about why this strange woman was rubbing me, I put my hand on the lady's shoulder...'ma'am,' I said, 'I think you must be falling asleep.'  Well, that jarred her awake.  And she felt a little embarrassed.  'My husband is at the conference with me and usually sits by me at all the sessions.  I was falling asleep and just automatically put my hand on his knee, but it turned out to be you!'  We had a good laugh about this and it became a funny touch point through the conference because she told her husband too and whenever we ran into one another there were the expected humorous remarks, like, 'am I going to need to separate you two?!'

It really wasn't embarrassing at all.  In fact, it made me think how sweet and comforting it is just to have someone familiar to sit by and rub their knee. 

A second story in the past couple weeks about the power of touch is a little more personal.  Our beloved 18 year old cat experiences a big decline in health, had to be euthanized.  Deciding to have a vet come to the house seemed like the most loving choice, because Emmylou hated going to the vet.  In fact, in her younger years, I couldn't ever take her, because her upset mewing unnerved me.  So, when it became apparent that these were her last days, I looked into several in-home vet choices (all of which looked very reputable and caring) and went with an organization called, Lap of Love. 

My son is almost 14 years old.  As a little boy, though he snuggled, he was always squirmy like me.  He didn't want anyone to hold him for too long - he wanted to move and go.  And after fourth grade, he has been decidedly un-snuggly and very stoic by nature.  He is not one to express tender emotion at all.  Except when it comes to the animals.  After those parenting moments when you think, 'is my kid going to turn out ok?', I'll see him with Emmylou or the dog and know that he has a gentle soul underneath his no-nonsense exterior. 

But I was surprised when he wanted to be present for 'the end'.  And not only that, a profound moment occurred that I could never have planned.  I sat on the floor with the cat and the vet and she'd given Emmylou her first shot - the shot for pain and anesthesia.   If you've ever been with an animal at that time, they sort of give up their energy then - they become very limp and lifeless and it was then that the tears for me, started.  My nose was running and I wiped my nose on my shirt and it was getting to be a little gross, honestly, so I said to my son, 'Would you hold her while I go get a tissue?'  Yes, he would.  So he got down on the ground and held her little head and shoulders in his hands and stroked her.  When I came back, it was almost time for her to get the final shot.  'Do you want me to hold her now?' I asked him - I thought maybe he wouldn't want to hold her as she died.   'No, I'm ok,' he said.  So he held her and just petted her gently, and I held her little paw.  And we are so crazy in my family that even my ex-husband was there in the room and the dog and my daughter were upstairs because that 's what they wanted.  But more than any of what could have been weird family dynamics, in my view something much more significant happened.   I saw that Emmylou was held at the end of her life, by someone who does not give out his love easily, but loved her very much. 

I guess my relationship with being comforted and loved through the power of touch transformed through both becoming a mother and witnessing what it means to simply hold someone's hand as you sit by their sickbed.  Though, my mom reports that as a kid, if she or my dad tried to get me to sit on their laps and snuggle, I'd sit for a very short while and then say, "too tight."  And even now, if I'm with a natural born hugger (rather than a convert like me), I can feel that my hugs are about 2 seconds shorter than theirs would be.  But, I keep working on balancing my squirminess and desire to move with my willingness to be vulnerable in that way.  It seems to me that hugs and physical touch and care are some of the most beautiful parts of being a human and I don't want to miss out on any of it.

Just a final thought - I was looking up quotes about hugs to wrap up this blogpost and many of them, as you can imagine, are pretty cheesy, but I'll leave you with the one below.  Hope you get or give a good hug today.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Getting on the Floor to Die and Other Improvisations

When I worked in home hospice, we held a small memorial service every Wednesday after our staffing meeting.  We dimmed the lights, we lit a candle, we said a prayer, and we had the opportunity to share memories or feelings about our patients who died in the previous week.  Recently, I stumbled upon a story from a young nurse that I'd written down in my journal from 2008.  This nurse talked about a very poor man, her patient, during the memorial one week.  He became very restless in the last couple of days of his life - which many people do.  Some people hallucinate or become agitated.  Sometimes we think this is due to physical pain, sometimes we think this is due to emotional pain.  But this man, in his restlessness, kept getting on the floor.  His sister and her family were caring for him and they felt incredibly frusturated with what seemed to them like his 'misbehavior.'  Almost like a toddler who won't stay in bed.  Almost like, "why, after all we are doing for you, won't you stay put like a good boy?"  The nurse pondered it over those couple of days - something about this man touched her. 

After two days of him awkwardly and half-comatose finding his way somehow, to the floor, the nurse had a burst of intuition.  "This man wants to die on the floor," she thought.  So when she was next there and he was on the floor, she got on the floor with him.  And she held him for an hour; put her arms around him right there on the floor.  And he died.  She was right -  he wanted to be on the floor to die and she was able to hear the message he couldn't speak.  To look at the evidence before her and honor it.  You're not supposed to die on the floor - maybe that seems to lack dignity.  But in my time in hospice, this is one of the most loving stories, one of the most diginifed stories, I heard.

Improvisation is what comes to mind. It reminds me of a This American Life segment from 2014  A woman and her husband (who are comedic actors by profession) are caregivers for the wife's mother, who has Alzheimer's.  The mother says things like, "Look at those monkeys in the backyard."  And instead of saying "there are no monkeys in the backyard," the couple learned to use their acting/improv skills with her.  The husband replies, "Pretty early in the season for monkeys."   He says to her, "If you see any more we'll try to catch one and bring it in."  She replies, "you can't bring monkeys in the house."  "Well," he says, "You can if you put pants on them."  She laughs.   Improvising vastly improved her quality of life.  And theirs.  They didn't argue and get in power struggles with her.  She could even access her sense of humor.

In improv comedy, there are a couple of rules: 1) Step into their world (your fellow actor) and 2) your only answer is "yes, and...". 

Lots of things happen in life that aren't 'supposed' to happen and aren't part of our life script.   When life deviates from our play, sometimes we step out of reality with reality.  For example, people aren't supposed to die on the floor.  For another example, I was not supposed to get divorced.  But supposed to is not the same as reality.  Now, I have to improvise.  I got divorced.  Yes, and... 

When we say 'no, but' to life, we are usually in for a period of deep frustration and even grief.  Here are some other examples I see of times we tend to say 'no, but..'  rather than, "yes, and...": 
when our child is having social or educational problems at school,
when our adult child makes a decision we disagree with,
when our brother owes us $200 from Christmas,
when our sister gets drunk and drives home from the work party,
when someone we love gets diagnosed with cancer.

How would our reactions change and even be more helpful if we said, "Yes, and" to the reality of those situations?  Would we say and think differently?  I think we would.  I think our power struggles would cease.  I think we feel less like we were beating our heads against the wall.

As I'm writing this, I'm even thinking that improvising applies to good things that present themselves to us, that we try for various reasons to deny - things that feel like a risk - a job change, a move, falling in love.  We are often overly and uselessly confused giving life a 'no, but,'  when the evidence points us to 'yes, and...' 

Look, I know life is complex and the signs aren't always as clear as the man who kept getting on the floor to die.  Sometimes we need a helper-  a friend, a nurse, a counselor, a sister, to help us look at the evidence of our lives and understand where to find the Yes, and...  This is when we can ask for help - when we can literally ask, or write down our thoughts, or pray or meditate and to our best to enter the world as it presents itself to us.  It's do-able - we just have to pay attention and let go of our 'supposed to's'.

And finally, it's important to remember, that if you bring the monkey in the house, it's much better for everybody if he's wearing pants. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

For Perfectionists Eyes Only and Some Sexy Advice from Nick Cage

If you are not a perfectionist, do not read any further.  For the love of God, don't read any further.

If you are a perfectionist (and you know who you are), please continue.

Recently someone commented to me about my divorce.  "I had no idea anything was wrong - everything looked so perfect from the outside."  To me, this conjurs disturbing images of Annette Bening having a meltdown in American Beauty.  But, I can kind of see what that person was saying.   We all know we fall into making false assumptions about other people's happiness, beauty and general well-being because of image -  because of Facebook, other social media and even holiday cards - we see everyone's pictures and they all look so insanely happy, well-rounded and adjusted. 

I actually don't think I fall into the category of perfectionist who wants to create a perfect image, because the way I am perceived by others has not been overly important to me (at least since I was about 19 or 20).  But, I have been looking at other ways in which I might be a perfectionist.  Perhaps a perfectionist on a deeper level.  And a level that might be more damaging, if I don't take the opportunity to change.  Here's what I mean:   For me, it's never been so much about what other people think - I am very comfortable for people to know that I have struggles, my family is quirky, and I am probably more eccentric than I even know. 

The way I have been a perfectionist has been in my spiritual life.  I have always had the idea that I should the best human being I can be.  In Into The Woods, one of Sondheim's lyrics is, "Nice is not the same as good."  I get that. I've always had a weird relationship with being good.  Sometimes I bristle when other people tell me I'm good or think I'm good because of the work I do, but I've always wanted to be good in the eyes, for lack of a better word, in the eyes of God.  And also myself.    Maybe I thought, on some unconscious level, that it is our life's purpose to be spiritually GOOD:  To love unconditionally, to look for the best in others, to forgive easily, to see our own shortcomings and ways we may have hurt others and own up to those and change.  Somehow I think I conflated two things though - trying to be good and trying to be perfect.  Underneath my wanting to simply have integrity with myself, I think I wanted or expected myself to be super-human in my emotional/spiritual evolution.  I think this has caused me to scrutinize myself and always ask, "couldn't I be a better person?"  To hold my imperfections with a tight fist, rather than a loose hand.  To, at least inwardly, take myself seriously.  To be too cautious and too hard on myself. 

Guess what?  I am changing.  I am broadening my approach to this human life.  I'm thinking and feeling that loving perfectly, or having enough hubris to think you can perfect your spiritual self, maybe is ugly in it's own way.   Maybe loving imperfectly and allowing messiness is actually what it means to be a 'good' human.  I love this clip from Moonstruck (one of the best all time and most romantic movies ever):  I also want to add - Who wouldn't go upstairs with this guy?!? 

As Nick Cage says - 'Snowflakes are perfect.  Stars are perfect.  We are not here to be perfect.  We are here to make a mess of things.'  Well, we are going to make a mess of some things whether we intend to or not.  And maybe if we keep everthing so orderly that we don't make a mess of things, we are not fully living our one, human life. 

When I was a sophomore in college, I took a Greek Philosophy class - we learned about the idea of Arete - the virtue of excellence.  I remember going to my professor during office hours - he was probably 60 years old, hunched over, a lifelong academic and he carried an unlit cigarette in his hand all the time.  He waved it around for effect during class.  I said to him, "Professor, I would like to live with virtue and excellence. You see, I'm a runner, but I also smoke.  How can I run with excellence if I'm a smoker?"  I asked this so sincerely.  So earnestly.  Here's what he said, "You're missing the fucking point."

There is an idea that I recently became aware of  in Japanese art - wabi-sabi.  The beauty of imperfection, the beauty of what is impermanent.  Loosely translated, it's something like, "stark and withered."  I like it because the point of view that imperfection is beautiful seems revolutionary to our American psyches. 

Maybe you are a perfectionist in how you keep your house.  Maybe you are a perfectionist in how many times a week you work out.  Maybe you want to be the perfect daughter, the perfect employee, the perfect volunteer.   It is probably time to look at what is driving that - is it the way you were raised?  A need to be in control?  A response to chaos in other places in your life?

Perfectionists, I'm not advocating totally giving up.  I'm advocating loosening up.   Why?  Because maybe that's the best way to embrace this life, to really live, to (as my professor so eloquently put it) not miss the fucking point. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Some Things I've Learned about Anger, Grief, and Race

When I worked in hospice, I prided myself on being able to disarm the patients and families I visited, many of whom did not want to see a hospice worker, and especially not a hospice social worker.  This may or may not seem obvious...but the gist of it is that if you're in hospice, you are dying, and most people don't like reminders of that.  And we come into your home at what is most often a time like no other - a time when adrenaline and desperation are coursing through you if you're a caregiver and a time, if you are a patient, when you want to save every small ounce of energy you have for people you love, not strangers.  And social workers are the worst - we ask 'nosey' questions about coping, fear, support systems, and family history.  But, I'm kind of funny and fun and I'm a good listener.  And at that time, I tried my best to pace the personal questions in a way that didn't feel too much like a barrage.

One family I remember consisted of an elderly woman being cared for by her adult son.  I called the son trying to set up my first appointment to introduce myself and help them connect to any resources that might be helpful for her care at home. The instant he answered the phone, I knew this man was pissed.  Pissed about people coming into his home, pissed about her medical care, and pissed off at me for calling.  I remember driving down Hwy 44 talking with him on my flip phone and something in his voice let me know that I could argue back with his pissed-offedness - that if I stood up to him and earned his respect, I could make some progress with him.  And that's what I did.  It was a risk.  He wouldn't let me in that day, but he agreed that I could visit later in the week.

You know what's weird? His mom died later that very day (this happens sometimes in hospice-  people get referred very late in their illness or they take a sudden turn as soon as they know they don't have to go back to the hospital anymore.)  Anyway, I was the hospice worker who got called to that death.  I thought, "Oh, shit.  I hope the son will be ok with me."  He was.  It was like we were old friends when I showed up to help take care of the calls to the medical examiner, and the funeral home, and I was able to have credibility with him and provide comfort to other family members because I'd made this rather argumentative connection with him on the phone in the morning.

Overcoming barriers between people isn't always that easy.  Some barriers run deep and won't be overcome by charm or moxy.

Another patient who let me into her home fairly easily was an 80-ish year old African American lady who was being cared for by her sister.  Though the sister was pleasant enough to me, my patient was cold and non-communicative and I felt suspicion and dislike emanating from her.  It might have been on my second visit, I asked this patient, "Are you concerned for your sister?"  "Why would I be concerned for her?" the lady replied.  This stumped me - I wanted to say, "Because you love her and she will be alone after you die."  But, I knew I could not address death directly with this patient (lots of hospice patients do not want to talk directly about death, and that's OK.)  So, I said something more simple but with a vague openness, "Just wondering if you are concerned this is hard on her."
"I'd like you to leave now," she said.  "And you are not welcome back."

I can't say you could have knocked me over with a feather, but I was certainly stunned and hurt.  And yet I knew a truth deep inside me (something that we have been grappling with much more overtly in the past couple years in St. Louis and in our nation).  This had something to do with race.  I didn't know what, I didn't name it aloud to my patient, but I knew it.

I called one of my hospice co-workers, who is black and told her what happened.  I concluded, "I  sometimes get the feeling that some of my older African American patients don't like me."

You know what she said?  "They don't."

It was a good, honest lesson.  She said, "Katy, you are a young white woman social worker.  You probably seem nosey.  As a social worker, your profession has the reputation of splitting up families, and you are part of the medical community and with Tuskegee and everything else, many older black people don't trust white doctors and medical professionals."

I've come to understand that my confidence in overcoming barriers between people is coming from a place of privilege.  I am given certain leeway, and I am used to being seen in certain positive ways by our larger culture, if for no other reason than I am a white female.  When my black patient didn't like me, maybe just because I was white, it was the ego bruise,  I wasn't used to that because I am white.  And what I needed to understand was that her not liking me was about deep pain, deeper than that moment, deeper than my life history and longer than her life history.

And this is something I understand because, though I'm not an expert in history, or sociology, or law, I am an expert in grief.

My very first social work internship, I helped teach the parenting class for divorcing parents in St. Louis City.  We used to teach, "Anger is a tooth with two root.  Fear and sadness."  I actually think it's very true.  In both these stories from my long ago hospice days, I was the recipient of anger - whether that anger was merited or not at me personally, it doesn't matter to me.  But anyone who has ever grieved probably experienced the part of grieving that is anger - and that grief anger can sometimes not be comforted or changed.  We are angry because something is not fair.  Our loss isn't fair.  What we've been through isn't fair.  We are fearful more unfair things will happen.  We are sad that unfair things have happened and can't be undone.  We experience these feelings uniquely and individually, but it may also help us to know that the world of humanity experiences them also.

Have you ever had anyone try to talk you out of your grief or your anger?  It doesn't work and it probably just makes you more mad or feel more alone.  It's something I try my best not to do, no matter how uncomfortable it is to sit with someone's despair or rage.  What I try my best to do is witness these feelings and perhaps this is the beginning of some healing.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Religion: Not sure where I'll end up, but having a good time getting there

Yesterday, my daughter and I had an adventure.  Now, by standards of like Ponce de Leon, this was not very adventurous, but sometimes I feel like Kimmy Schmidt in the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and everything seems like an adventure to me.  This one was a spiritual adventure.

At my request, we bundled up and took ourselves to a different church than our usual, went on to Strange Donuts (oddly, also religiously instructive), and ended out back at the church we've been going to for the past 13 year.  This is the short story of how it happened, what happened, and what might happen in the future.

But first, maybe we should go to the far past.  All my life, I've had an active relationship with God.  As I grew up, that relationship definitely went through several metamorphoses  In my childhood, it was "God The Father" with a scientific twist.  I didn't want to disappoint God and I wanted God to understand that I didn't want to be good just to get into heaven, but that I really, really wanted to do God's will.   But, I also thought frequently, "Where did God come from?"  "How could something ALWAYS be there?"  I couldn't suss it out to make sense.  In the college years, it was a kind of Arts and Sciences relationship with God (God, how can I pray to you when there really isn't a 'being' such as God.  And what about religion as an instrument of oppression, patriarchy, etc.  And what about the Holocaust?!  And yet, in my gut, I believe in I guess I will just be mixed up and avoid church).  Then, in my late twenties and early thirties - my early years as a social worker- I saw so much human suffering and the most vulnerable people every day - I knew I needed a spiritual community and something that sustained me spiritually, so I began attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation, which, religiously stems from Judeo-Christian roots, but in practicality, it's a spiritual home for people who range from Buddhist, to Jewish, to secular humanist, to Christian, to pantheist.  And since then, my relationship with God has been been daily in both mundane ways (Have you ever seen Fiddler on the Roof?  I talk to God pretty much like an invisible friend at times i.e., God, do you think you could make my life lessons a little less jarring?  Would that be so troublesome?) and also in mysterious ways that are beyond my ability with words.  It's become unimportant to me whether the word God is what's used to name God.  I use the word God, but I know a lot of people feel uncomfortable with that.  Many of those same people experience deep in them something like I do: a knowing that there is something more.  I call it God.  I see it and feel it as Love, and I know it as Mystery and a Goodness Beyond Words.  

So, that's the backstory.  The current story is this:  two things are converging.  As my marriage was ending, I felt increasing curious about how Christian theology might fill out the meaning of my experiences of my marriage and the end of my marriage.  So, I met a couple times with a Methodist minister I know.  Also, I grew up Methodist, so the familiarity and frame of reference appealed to me.  Not only that - I've been compelled, as so many of us have, by  news, politics, intersection of religion with currents events, and I've been wondering how to be a part of the solution, even a small part, in this miasma of vitriol, anger and  hate.  The solution, for me is compelled by what I consider to be not only my civic conviction, but spiritual beliefs.

So, that led me (and my daughter) to the rock and roll Methodist Church yesterday.  She looked at me early in the service, as the band was rockin' out and said, "we're more uptight than this."  But twice during the service, she whispered, "I really like this, do you?"  I did.  The message, pivoted on a quote from the Sermon on the Mount, but it broke down the Bible verse into interpretation and emphasis - it gave choices, and emphasized both/and thinking (rather than either/or thinking). 

Afterward, of course, my daughter didn't want to go to a second church service in one morning.  What 11 year old kid does?  But, I wanted to go directly to our 'home' church and see how that felt.  So I bribed her with Strange Donuts and off we flew.  The man at the donut counter asked us what we were doing and when I told him, I also asked if he grew up with a religion.  "Catholic," he said.  "But I don't go anymore.  It's interesting that I'm studying at a Jesuit school."  We laughed and talked for a few minutes about Catholicism.   And as my daughter and I walked out into the wind and cold, she said "That's weird that we had such a deep conversation in the donut shop."  I said "Stick with me, kid."  Because truthfully, I have weird, deep conversations with people in passing all the time.

And then we entered our familiar, old church.  The sanctuary where we've spent holidays, watched baptisms (Unitarian style), taken part in Youth Talent Shows, and Christmas Pageants.  Not to mention all the 'old' faces - the people we've seen age, the children I've seen grow, the characters I've come to have so much affection for.   This is the weird part to me - not deep conversations, but to find myself contemplating a religious crossroads, to wonder if I'll take a step toward a further metamorphosis in my relationship with God?  Or will it be a different iteration of my relationship with the church?  

Walking and talking and laughing and learning with my daughter, I felt and feel joyous and grateful.  We are together in a country where we can choose our religion, where we can disagree and talk and wonder with people we know well and those we've just met.  We can change our minds!  We can walk down the street with the wind whipping the hair in our faces and practically skip with the energy of it.   

And, I don't know what will happen next.  And, I treasure both the freedom and responsibility of that.