An effort (to return)

This evening the air is cool and the wind is blowing fiercely in quick bouts. The sun graciously offers her warmth from behind thick, brooding clouds, but she mostly fails. It’s mid October and the days are growing shorter by what feels like the minute, despite the fact that such things are not possible in the scale of time.

I’ve left the back door ajar, but I sit inside, looking out, a window of color framed by a dull grayness, the quickening absence of light.

This season change is changing me. It’s wearing me out on days that just months ago would have felt short, it’s putting me to bed prematurely, curling me up into covers under layers of clothing, reading and sleeping when I otherwise might be productive, might be social. I slept nearly ten hours last night. And I woke up wanting more, greedy sleeper that I am. I wanted selfishly to return to my dreamland, where I encountered friends, time warps, and families of bears. What’s the necessity in waking, exactly, with the exception of walking the dog?

Work is as challenging as ever, with my ever-growing caseload of homeless families. Still, it’s my job to serve them and often that means bearing witness to their trauma. I take work home with me when I shouldn’t. Not just objects that represent it, like my datebook and my cell phone, but pieces of their stories, images of their lives. I take their needs home with me and juggle them around in my brain at night when I can’t sleep.

Sometimes my poor wife has to hear about it. She had to hear about the guilt that I felt upon (re)discovering curtains in our thrift store giveaway bag; curtains that remained completely out of my short-term memory and awareness, yet sat 10 feet away in my car, as I met with a newly-housed family in dire need of everything one might want to make a small barren apartment into a home.

Luckily, she also gets to hear stories of success and, perhaps even more frequently, how inspired I am by the women I come in contact with every day. She gets to hear incredible tales about a family of 12 with little-to-no-income, and the most minute about of help on my part, managed to relocate to another part of the state and secure an affordable rental, all over a holiday weekend. There are happy endings to be sure, but they’re nothing like the kind at Friendly’s which you strain to lick out your sundae cup, they’re just the best case scenario with foreseeable struggles attached.

Still, I am drawn to this work even as I feel it overtake me at times. The stress stems from knowing how much there is to be done and realizing in the end, there is so little that I can do. As I sat in our agency’s monthly Anti-Racism Committee meeting this afternoon discussing the events in Ferguson and contemplating the ceaseless racism and violence that perpetuates our culture, I felt both heartache and helplessness pulse through my being. There is no easy answer for these kinds of institutionalized atrocities. And my state of near-tears silence for the duration of the meeting, I was surely of little assistance. But, I am watching and doing in every small way that I can each day. I am doing what is often hard work, having hard conversations, and still trying hard to find a lot of joy in life. If all that I manage to do tonight is bake a loaf of banana bread and share this seemingly haphazard stream of thoughts, then, well, maybe what I’ve done is good enough until tomorrow.

An update long overdue

My job is not terrible. It is, in fact, quite wonderful, albeit sometimes in a way that makes me feel bipolar. I work with clients, mostly single mothers, who manage to inspire in the face of all that they’ve lost. Women who continue to be the rock that holds their families together. Women who look me in the eye and convince me that they’ll do just fine paying rent that’s one half of what they bring in.

Of course, with every bout of elation (mania), there’s a low (depression) to match. I have my dark moments. I meet mothers with three children who tuck their kids away in the homes of friends each night and walk themselves to the nearest bus, where they’ll ride through the night our of necessity and to avoid, at all costs, being an added burden. Their greatest fear tends not to be the overwhelming burden of their current homeless existence- it’s that somehow they’ll fail, or be perceived by the system of failure, and the only thing in their possession of value: their children.

These stories are impossibly hard to bear witness to, as are the tears that accompany them. Tears that I cannot lessen or even wipe away. I have no stupid joke to lighten the mood for a moment. Usually there’s nothing at all to say. Often my own tears join along in a quiet act of solidarity. They are of the “this is tragic and there is nothing (I mean, nothing) I can do to help” variety.

And then there are days like today. Days that make me feel like I’m a case manager extraordinaire, or a caring and effective resource in the least. Today I accompanied my first client as she signed a lease and received the keys for her new home.

Tonight, these few things will fill her apartment: her and her son, the beds that I bought them, and the bedding that’s kept them warm over the course of two years as they made residence (in a place we in social work refer to as, “a place not meant for human habitation”): a four-door sedan.

Today, as I half-jokingly teased my client about not using her $100 gift card for a new television—she looked me dead in the eyes as if I was crazy—I couldn’t help but notice the warmth that began to radiate from the innermost part of my being. Call it altruism. Call it an act of service. I know I’m getting paid here, people, but this feeling of shared empowerment, of betterment, of quite simply finding someone a home when they’ve been without one for so long. That otherwise indescribable feeling is worth any amount of bad days, any number of tears.

Grounding

Is what I’m attempting to do, as I come home, shoulders heavy with the realities of my clients’ lives. I work with homeless families in my new position. I’m a case manager, a position idolized by no one and pitied by many. It’s my second day in this position and somehow I’ve already worked my way to quietly overwhelmed.

This is, in theory, what I’ve been seeking for years: to serve people less fortunate than myself, to fight for justice, to be in a place to make an impact in a significant way. I am fighting The Good Fight on the front lines.

I am one of a half-dozen case managers on my team with 30+ years (or more) between them and I feel knowledgeless in comparison. (I also feel as if this word should exist, if only to describe my current state.)

I am shadowing. Meeting clients and sitting like a fly on the wall, listening to stories and absorbing the many suggestions that my brilliant colleagues have to offer. I am speechless, which is okay for now, but soon won’t be. Soon I’ll have to speak. Have to reflect, to comfort, to empathize outwardly. I’ll have to remind my clients of all that they have in their lives as they struggle to keep it together describing the many things they are without. The majority are without jobs or income. They all have kids. Some of them have a bit of education. Many of them have a mental or physical illness. A few of them have supports (though many of those supports have been exhausted). None of them have a place of their own. None of them have a clue how to get back on track. It’s my job to find that invisible link from the present to the future: a path to stability. A means to getting them off of the wait list for housing on which 400 other local families sit.

Somehow I’ve been judged qualified to do this. To listen, to be creative, to find solutions where there were none. That doesn’t ward off the panic that’s already begun to set in.

My new boss sat down with me today to listen to my story. To touch base. And to say, in essence, “Hey- do you think you can handle this? Are you ready for this wild ride?”

I swallowed hard and said all that I could say as a recently unemployed woman with no immediate options: “yes. Of course.” It’s hard to remember now if I met her eyes.

As I now try to shake off a long day and a head full of worries, I’m finding that the usual tricks don’t work. After work snack (binge) of banana bread and fat-laden milk? That felt great for a second. But my bubble bath felt like a sweat-inducing pool of guilt, causing me to visualize my client’s faces and wonder how long it had been since they’d had the same luxury. Sometimes all that helps is a hug from my partner, a few deep sighs, and a moment spent clickety-clacking everything out onto this old keyboard. If, in the end, I’m left with the notion that today I did my best (all that any of us can do): I admit success.

Liberation

Perhaps you don’t know when you’ve stumbled upon it. My impression was that it would look different somehow, present as pure radiance, or blue skies and a clear mind. Instead it is simply this: my current reality.

It turns out that after one month, the “f” in funemployment becomes silent. After two, if you’re lucky, you realize your true state of liberation, or in my case are politely reminded by a friend. This is the same glass half-full/empty scenario, tied wholly to one’s perspective. Am I liberated from the burden of employment or fraught with concerns about money, weighed down by the monotony of each passing day?

It’s often hard to identify with the heart opening, mind-altering perspective on this. Granted, my spirits have been pretty high despite the fact that (a), I’m frighteningly close to my 3-Month-Income-Free-iversary and (b), was recently turned down for a job with a dog walking company (admittedly, I could have expressed a tad more enthusiasm). I have been as diligent in my job search as I have with my yoga practice. I welcome in the joyfulness of each sunny day. I busy myself with friends and extracurriculars like a boss. And still, a damp dreariness often finds its way into my heart, like a stubborn, heavy fog. My vision escapes me. Best intentions transform before me into dark, blurry forms.

I failed to finish my “Where will you be five years from today?” workbook. I misplaced my Career Guide to Non-Profits library book in a satchel, where it sat for what must have been weeks. I have had hard weeks, sometimes in frighteningly close succession. And still I persevere. I’m finally hearing back from organizations for interviews. Granted, they seem to forget about me for weeks afterward, but I try not to let that get me down. Something grand lurks around the corner. I can sense it, like the subtle encroaching of Spring.

I am blessed with a network of family and friends who continue to encourage and support me. Not one of them has ever implied that I may have made a poor decision, even if I sometimes let myself wonder. People toss me dog-walking jobs and other sundry paid tasks. They introduce me to their friends who introduce me to their friends. In essence, I am utterly dependent on this web of caring souls that suspends me, and somehow still willful, free to move about as I please.

My friend is right. This is liberation.

 

A word from my friend, Mary Oliver:

Entitled, “Roses, Late Summer”

What happens

to the leaves after

they turn red and golden and fall

away? What happens

 

to the singing birds

when they can’t sing

any longer? What happens

to their quick wings?

 

Do you think there is any

personal heaven

for any of us?

Do you think anyone,

 

the other side of that darkness,

will call to us, meaning us?

Beyond the trees

the foxes keep teaching their children

 

to live in the valley.

So they never seem to vanish, they are always there

in the blossom of light

that stands up every morning

 

in the dark sky.

And over one more set of hills,

along the sea,

the last roses have opened their factories of sweetness

 

and are giving it back to the world.

If I had another life

I would want to spend it all on some

unstinting happiness.

 

I would be a fox, or a tree

full of waving branches.

I wouldn’t mind  being a rose

in a field of roses.

 

Fear has not yet occurred to them, nor ambition.

Reason they have not yet thought of.

Neither do they ask for long they must be roses, and then what,

or any other foolish question.

 

 

Searching.

I.

It’s what I’ve been doing as much as it is what I’ve always done. It’s our generation, they say. So many of us are dreamers, floaters, and idealists. Unlike our parents, we don’t strive to settle down, to stay put, to display success through stability. We dare to thrive. Dare to wonder. Dare to leap.

I type this as I sit here work-booking my way through a cheesy text entitled, “Where will you be five years from today?” The book is wonderful and it is terrible. It’s something I’ll keep safe from my chicken scratch in order to hand it on to another friend (a friend of sorts gave it to me, after all). That, or I’ll play pompous and give it away next Christmas as a White Elephant gift.

Why is it so daunting to read through this book, to turn the mirror on myself, to put down in writing all that I hope to achieve? I’m not sure. Perhaps because the concept of a Five-Year Plan makes me cringe. This from the woman who, at age 5, sat in bed holding a 300-page JC Penney catalog, marking pages and making mental notes about which wallpaper border I would adhere to my future-potential-child’s bedroom walls. Or, perhaps the task is daunting because I’ve done it before and I’m not exactly where I planned on being five, ten, fifteen years ago.

I recall preparing for doctoral admissions interviews by reciting my five-year plan: something to do with being in the midst of my PhD program, doing meaningful research and working with individual clients. I imagined, as well, that I’d have a long-term partner of sorts. I did not imagine I’d have kids in five years (what would have been 2012), nor walls to call my own. I certainly didn’t plan in any wallpaper.

I applied to, and interviewed for, clinical psychology PhD programs during the last semester of my masters program; a period in which I was confident would be the jumping off point for my future career. The year was 2007. I am seven years past this moment in time and could not be further from my plan (with the exception of my incredible long-term partner, of course).

This is how far away I feel from my formerly-imagined-future:

Eighty-five thousand dollars in federal loan debt

Three lost years in restaurant and retail work

Three more years in one incredibly under-stimulating, though slightly relevant-to-my-education research position

Thousands of miles.

That is how far I am from being Dr. Frankenhauser today.

II.

It is 2014 and I am voluntarily unemployed. I am making daily efforts to move forward into what I hope will be more meaningful work. I am rich in many things, and none of them are finances.

Today, in completing my workbook exercises, I wrote down these words/phrases: Wellness; Love; Intention; Family; and Generosity of Spirit. These are the values I chose for myself and according to my shiny red book, they’re paving the way for my mission and my goals.

Missions: the squirmy little ideas that guide us through life. They’re delightful and, as evidenced by the outward success of so many corporations and notorious individuals, completely necessary. Even in moments when we’ve somehow become distanced from them, they’re there to steady our gaze, ground us, and remind us of our purpose in this wild ride we call Life.

When I try to express my objectives to employers and when I fill out shiny red workbook exercises, I tend to repeat phrases that reflect this general notion:

That all people deserve to be loved, respected, and receive equal opportunities for wellness and growth. This is the essence of my intention, if you will. And what, in the end, is a hazy mission statement at best.

This leads me to ask, what the hell is so wrong with being vague? The word has such a negative connotation, as if intentions that are open and flexible are not worthy intentions at all. I chastise myself for being so broad in my objectives. For saying things like, “I want to find work with a local non-profit focused on social justice” knowing that it could mean a swath of different things. It could mean I help individuals who are homeless to find solid housing or become more employable. It could mean than I go back into prisons, spending time on the Inside, creating safe, respectful spaces for people who are in dire of need them. It could mean that I volunteer with an organization that builds urban gardens, educates children, and addresses food access issues. Is it terrible that I care to do any and all of these things? That my call to serve feels so expansive that a multitude of paths could equally be the way?

I have to think not. Sure, it’s great that some people move through life with a sole purpose, guided by an incredibly specific question or motive. If that’s you, I envy you. If that’s not you, let’s grab a drink.

III.

On my path today to writing down my values and mission, the cheesy, shiny red book told me to write down the happiest person I know. I didn’t write down the name of my favorite writer, my yoga teacher, or a Buddhist Monk. I wrote down the name of a friend who lives simply and joyfully; who impacts each person around her by radiating contentedness, positive energy, and light. From what I hear, she’s currently working at a café. From what I see, she spends her days enjoying friends, soaking up sun, and living joyfully. I haven’t talked to her about her “five-year plan.” Given what I know of her, there’s no need to.

Oops, I did it again.

I leapt. I have a bad habit of doing this, though typically I like to wait until spring. There’s nothing like winter to make me want to hole up and stop moving, stop thinking, and stop growing. Here in Seattle, there’s so little daylight, most days I feel as if I’ve entered some socially acceptable form of hibernation. Here I am, the former Judger of All Things Couch Potatoe-y, calling the kettle black, sipping tea in sweatpants and sneaking salted caramels.

In the past, my job (life) transitions have always occurred in the spring. May’s my month, man. And I was gearing up mentally to do it again. Alas, the world waits for no one. Push has come to shove. Or, shall I say,  I do not linger where I am not wanted. This rule holds especially true when the place in which I am not wanted is also a place in which I no longer wish to be. A win-win? Perhaps. (Utterly vague? Absolutely.)

I can’t help but let my thoughts trail back to a couple of years ago when I left my stagnant/comfortable/painfully pleasant research job to go work on a farm in upstate New York. This life-altering experience follows me, as does the painful transitional six month phase-of-being-primarily-unemployed that followed. Still, I was propelled forward, Westward, onward. I landed where I stand (lie, lounge) now in the glorious city of Seattle.

Slowly dying brain cells and faded memories aside, I cannot forget what drove me to this migration. Of course the new digs are pretty swank (mountains and oceans anyone?), but we’re not just here for the scenery, folks. If I had to give a reason– besides “For the whales!” which is a favorite joke to play in awkward ice breaker situations—it would be this: we came here to live more fully, to find a new home together in an unfamiliar place, and really, to find our way forward. My lady followed (and still follows) her dream of becoming a forest ranger. I followed my dream of finding work within the field of social justice and in need of income, lost sight of that dream. I fell back into the tar pit that is the world of retail and let myself remain stuck there, immobile, for nearly two years.

Now what? I ask myself, posturing as if to battle. Now I’m crawling my way out, mildly marred, but not terribly worse for the wear. It’s time to stumble forward, feelers out, heart open, intentions ablaze. Time to give into loose footing, to trust, and once again let myself fall.

 

The queerest fear

I’m not quite sure when the fear began. Sure, I have never been that into reckless behavior or extreme sports, but I like to think I’ve mostly maintained an air of courage when it comes to navigating this great Earth. Truthfully though, I have never been “good” at getting injured. I suppose I’m referring to the way in which my eyes well up with tears when I’m suddenly injured. How upset and scared I feel, even as an adult, when I’m faced with the reality of the impending physical doom that awaits us all. Wounds and mortality beget us all, even those of us who race fearlessly race toward that end with nary a second thought.

In this case, I have to assume that my inexplicable fear was bred from my dreams. That somehow a string of specific recurring visions wrought with overwhelming emotion eventually brought me to this current state of terror. It’s as if my unconscious imaginings slowly forged themselves into being and that my chronic state of maturity is not solely responsible for my shrinking sense of invulnerability.

What is this newly apparent phobia, you may ask? A simple fear of hills. Yes, hills. Specifically, rolling, falling, or sliding down them (though in my dreamscapes, I also slide backwards in an attempt to surmount monstrous terrain). This coming from the girl who up has somewhat intentionally relocated herself from the vast flatness of the Midwest to the rolling hills of upstate New York and now to a city that is ridden with steep inclines and in my reality, often compares to a mild San Francisco ‘scape.

Of course, this fear is situational and is often made worse by my participation in activities that require the relinquishment of control for my general well-being: biking. When I’m on foot, though I’m exceptionally clumsy, I like to pretend that there’s safety and stability of my pair of size tens. That somehow grounding myself physically on the earth precludes me from catastrophe (the lies we tell ourselves). But I digress.

The panic I feel while biking down steep hills was undeniable today as I rode home from a friendly brunch date not more than two miles from my home. The ride there: delightfully challenging. There is no easy route here to any one destination. This is something I discovered quite quickly here, though I took pleasure in denying that fact for a good few months. Biking up and down dry hills is one thing. Getting caught in the spontaneous fits of rain that are quite common here is another. And so, as I biked home at snail pace and with great caution, gripping my wet handlebars and grimacing at the sound of my squeaky, rain-spattered brakes, I had the realization that I was utterly petrified by every coast, every slight turn, even by the most trivial surface change on the road. There I was, thirty years old, clutching my brakes as I glided down what some might find to be joyous descents. Instead of enjoying the freedom of gravity and the  refreshing mist of rain, I was mentally preparing for sudden injury or death, for sliding into traffic, for wrecking my body yet again, in even the smallest spill.

Therein lies the source of my fear… maybe? Except for the fact my hilly nightmares began ages before I’d ever taken on mountainous territory or flown over my handlebars as an adult. Before I had cracked a rib just by the mere act of hitting a curb at the wrong angle or had my wheel snag in a trolley track causing the temporary debilitation my shoulder. Heck, I still get tense in yogic headstands and I do them on a near-daily basis on the safety of my trusty mat.

So, perhaps it’s age? Perhaps it’s that I am (we are?) all haunted by pains of the past whether we like it or not; subconsciously recovering from spills, ego-bruises, and wounds to our delicate, ever-hardening hearts. But we can choose to face our fears, focus on the present, and still find those shadows hanging nigh in the periphery. After all, we are immortal, pervious beings and what’s worse, we fully realize this. Some embrace it, understanding and accepting that there is no true lastingness, while the rest of us sigh and shudder at the inevitable pains to come.

Even in picking this apart, I have no solution. I simultaneously occupy and reject this fear. I gear up, tell myself a lie (that even if I wreck it’s going to be okay) and gingerly take on those hills. On days like today, I take baby steps; ditch my pride, and two-step my way down even the smallest slopes. I embrace awesome clichés and do the one thing I can: I get back on that bicycle again.