Saturday, September 25, 2010

On being "okay"

I think a lot, talk a lot, and write a lot about connection, about words, about language, and the spaces between the connections, words, and language that cannot be filled. I think those spaces are necessary. Kahlil Gibran writes:

"…your inner soul is surrounded with solitude and seclusion. Were it not for this solitude and seclusion, you would not be you and I would not be I. Were it not for that solitude and seclusion, I would, if I heard your voice, think myself to be speaking; yet, if I saw your face, I would imagine that I were looking into a mirror."

Being unknown and being unknowable is what draws us together, and what keeps us apart. I think much of life is spent trying to fill those spaces between, to find what lies there, and to find ways of lessening the spaces between us.

Yet, it is so easy to get wrapped up in the mundane nature of the day to day, in the common interactions, that we miss the fact that each interaction is what Rollo May refers to as an “encounter.” We encounter one another’s souls each time we connect, whether we want to or not. Whether we try to, or not. Whether we honor that, or not. “Autopilot” kicks in, and we exchange greetings, sometimes entire conversations, without truly seeing or connecting or being with. I do it all the time—both in giving and in receiving.

How many of you have told someone you’re “okay” when you’re not? *Watches, nodding, as everyone raises their hand.*

How many of you do this regularly? *Watches, nodding, as everybody raises their hands again.*

Yep, I thought so. We all do. Sometimes, it’s just the little stuff that’s got us down: we woke up to the neighbor blaring music, walked into the kitchen to find that the dog had gotten into the garbage can, and trip over the pair of shoes we left in the living room, only to go out to the car and find the engine won’t start. Yeah, that pretty much sucks, no way around it; but when you see somebody and they ask “how are you,” if you’re like me, you’re going to say, “I’m okay.” There may be a sigh, or a grin that says “Oh dear lord, if you only knew…,” but, again, if you’re like me, you’re probably not going to elaborate too much.

But what about when life really sucks? You know, those times beyond the little things like the car not starting. The times when it’s just hard some mornings to drag your butt out of bed. The times when you know in your heart that you’ve hit upon something that is unsayable, when you know you are sitting on a story that is untellable, and when you feel in your gut that you need to say everything is okay, purely because you need someone to believe that it is, even if you can’t. Perhaps it’s all just autopilot then, for a while, or maybe it’s a conscious choice—but I bet, even then, you still told most people, “I’m fine.” “I’m okay.” “I’m hanging in there,” “moving along,” “rolling with the punches,” “doing all right.” My grandmother used to say, “I’m fair to middlin’.”

Sure, I can go through life telling everyone I’m fair to middlin’, and some days, I really am fair to middlin’, whatever that means. Sometimes, these days, though, “I’m okay” is more like a secret code that even I can't discern. Some days, “I’m okay” really means, “I can’t really say what’s going on right now because what I’m thinking is part of my semi-untellable experience, and I know you don’t really want to know.” Sometimes it means, “I don’t know if I’m okay or not.” Some days it says, “nope, not okay, but I don’t want you to know that.”

The past few months, more often than not, there has been this angry part of me that hears me telling everyone “I’m okay” and “I’m fine” when really, I’m just longing to fill that empty space between us that feels miles and miles wide. This angry part of me wants to say “hell no! I’m not ‘okay.’ I’m not ‘fine.’” But then I stop and realize that, yes, in this moment, quite possibly, I am. It’s like this confusing place of “okay” where your entire world is changing as you know it. A place where people are no longer what they were, you are no longer who you were, the world is no longer what it was, and you have no way of understanding this—nor do you want to.

It’s a place of this indefinable change that can’t be described, but can also be “okay” somehow, even while you grieve the change and what you lost. The idea that we can house such dichotomies within ourselves amazes me. The ability to hold so much internally fascinates, encourages, bewilders, and concerns me. Sometimes, this comes out in tears that say, “I am okay, and I am angry, and I am sad, and readjusting, and all of this can only be said through affect.” Sometimes, there is just this confusing state of “I am okay, and I am moving forward and making sense of this new world I find myself in, and I am angry at everything and nothing in particular, and I am sad, and I am confused and shaken and changing in ways I don’t understand and can’t name…and I am also in a place where I can sometimes find peace.”

So what is this “new place?” Am I “okay” or am I “not okay?” I am okay. But I am also not okay because I have to live in a world where really shitty things happen to women. I have to live in a world in which I am scared to leave my apartment at night, a world where I am scared to take walks by myself in broad daylight, a world in which I am now always wondering whether I’m safe or not. I’m not okay because I need to live in a world that makes women question whether what happened to them was “bad enough” to be considered “bad,” a world in which women can be harassed and touched and groped and abused verbally and left with bruises both visible and invisible and be told that they should “be grateful” that “nothing bad happened.”

I’m not okay because I need to live in a world where people can tell women it was their fault, and when they try to get help, they will be questioned as to how they initiated, encouraged, asked for, or did not stop the violence, and will be told that there was nothing that can be done to help them. I need to live in a world where the people women turn to for help become uncomfortable, and these women can be told that if they aren’t standing up to the harassment in a way that will end it, if they don’t speak up, fight back, in just the right way, then they must want it, somehow, subconsciously, and would it be okay if they explored that? This is a world where women are taught for their entire lives to be quiet, and gentle, to not fight back, to not take up space, to not call attention to themselves, and then the second something happens, they are blamed for following all those rules they have been taught.

I live in a world where the victim is blamed over and over and over again. I’m not okay because I need to live with the knowledge that, simply because I am a woman, I am not safe, my body can be seen as public property, and I will be seen as less of a woman—by both men and women—for not acquiescing to what a man wants, when he wants it, whether I know him or not. I’m not okay because there is so often no way for women to fight back to what was done to them, what was taken from them. I’m not okay because I realize that women are not the crazy ones, not the broken ones, not the ones with the problem, and yet they have been made repeatedly to feel crazy and broken and problem-laden when it is actually society that is broken in so many ways. In what way is THAT “okay?” In what way can that, even remotely, be construed as “okay?”

I’m okay. The world is not. And yet, we need to live in it. As a woman, there are few ways to express this anger so it can be heard. As a woman, there are few ways my anger about this issue can be heard. And yet—the anger is what feeds me, is what keeps me going, and keeps me remembering that it’s not me that’s broken.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The psychology and me dilemma

I find that I keep coming up against a dilemma: do I fit in psychology? Do I want to fit in psychology? If so, where do I fit? I will think I have solved it and then I keep revisiting it again and again and again. I know what I want: it sounds so simplistic, and I feel like it’s not professional, or not important or valid or looked kindly upon, or SOMETHING. But what I want to do, really, truly, in the deepest part of my soul, is I want to love. Sometimes I find that I just have so much emotion and feeling that my chest and my heart actually ache and feel as though there is this huge pressure as it tries to get out.

I am quiet. I’m shy. I hate confrontation. I’m not brilliant. I mess up. A lot. Most days, I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t write treatment plans. I take too long to write reports and stink at case conceptualization. I’m too emotional, feel too much, and can’t “compartmentalize” or whatever it is that they teach us to do. But I can feel and I can love and I have no choice but to share that. That is why I’m here. I know that. I denied it for a while and thought, “oh yes, I can be a cognitive-behavioral therapist.” Pffft. That thought has long since been abandoned. There’s nothing wrong with cognitive-behavioral therapy. There’s nothing wrong with any of it. It’s just not me.

But, all that stuff that “isn’t me” is what is valued. I mean, seriously, supervision would NOT go well if I said “oh, ya know, I loved the client today.” My intervention on my Individualized Service Plan is not “love.” However, that’s what is behind it all and I’m not competent or confident enough yet to put it into acceptable clinical terms. I want to see my client and come out to write my report saying:

“He’s lost, confused and in pain. At 6 years old, he hates his family, hates the world, feels violated, and knows he will continue to be hurt. He hates himself for hating his family, for wanting what he can’t have, for not being able to meet his own needs and needing to rely on others. He feels incompetent and he’s angry that he’s incompetent and he can’t figure out how to reconcile all those feelings in a little 6 year old body, with a 6 year old vocabulary, and a 6 year old brain. So he explodes.”

Instead, however, I write about his Verbal IQ versus his Performance IQ, his receptive versus expressive language ability, and the themes from the Childhood Apperception Test he hung off his chair and bounced around the room while answering. I tell my supervisor he is hyperactive when I really mean he’s unable to find a center where he feels calm and safe. I say he’s impulsive when I mean that he grabs everything in sight before it disappears from his constantly shaky world. I say that he feels conflicted over his parents’ divorce and feels a torn alliance between his mother and father. What I really mean, however, is that the kid ripped my heart out and stamped on it a few times as he told me that “when a Mommy has a baby in her tummy, that baby should be just hers and she should get to love it and keep it, even if the Daddy loves the baby more.” I say that this client has touched me when what I really mean is that this little boy is so incredibly strong and resilient he brings tears to my eyes. I really mean I find this child an incredible human being, and it has been an honor sharing the room with him. What I really mean is that I have a deep love and respect for this child. But I don’t say that. Instead, I finish the report with a label that is supposed to describe him to the rest of the world in 5 words or less: “Conduct Disorder” or “Oppositional Defiant Disorder” or “Parent-Child Relational Problems” or both or all three or something else. Then, having labeled his broken parts, I send him on his way.

So why can’t I say what I want to say? I don’t know. It’s frightening. Because if I were to say what I said above, it would admit that I’m human. It would admit that there’s something wrong with me that I can’t think in terms of normal psychology. It’s not only putting my client “out there,” it is putting me out there as well. I worry that I’ll be seen as “too emotional,” because I know I probably am. I worry they’ll think I miss the point. I worry I’ll be seen as na├»ve or incompetent, or unable to handle the emotions, or too attached, or a whole host of other things that run through my head endlessly. I worry that I don’t understand what therapy really is because I don’t really do anything; I just love, and feel their pain and sit with them in it, and reflect to them their strengths.

I do feel VERY deeply. I am still discovering the depths of my emotion, and how to close myself off enough that I do not allow the emotion to completely penetrate my core. I’m still discovering whether I want to close myself off. I am learning how to let go. I’m learning how to shake off the emotions that do not belong to me and find those that are my own. I’m learning that it is okay to feel this deeply. I’m learning that this weird way I feel and live in this world can still be a blessing. I’m learning not to see it as a curse, and this is hard. People don’t understand that feeling and being and existing so deeply can feel like you’re rubbing a bruise. Not all the time, of course, but sometimes, it feels like my whole body is bruised and beat up purely from the weight of being and living in the world. At worst, it can feel like I’m walking through a world of broken glass. Everyone seems to think that feeling is good, and loving is good, and being is good; I don’t know how to explain that sometimes it is more like a burden that makes the pain of the world feel as though it is resting on your shoulders.

But every day, I get up knowing that there will be moments when I can see people so beautiful I will be in awe. Every day, I get out of bed knowing that there will be a moment when I feel so intensely alive, I can feel the pulse of everything that is holy and beautiful running through me and another person. I know every single day that I and every single other person holds that amazing strength and beauty within us. Every single day I fight to see it—to see it in myself, to see it in others, and to help others see it in themselves. I also know that every single day there are going to be moments when I am going to be full of nothing. When I am going to see others who have nothing in them, and I know I will feel empty. I know that every day I will see people who are filled with death, and anger and hatred and so, so, so much pain. I know that I will feel dead inside, and I will be angry, and I will hate, and I will hurt. I can ignore the emotions. I can push aside the feelings. I can pretend I don’t think and feel and hurt and love; but then I’m exhausted from pretending and from living without my soul and I realize it’s easier just to feel.

But does that fit in psychology? I don’t know. Where does it fit, if not psychology? I don’t know that, either. Perhaps it is like this for everyone, and I just have this strange need to express it. Or perhaps it really is just a “me” thing. At this point, I think naming it, describing it, feeling it, is a wonderful, beautiful thing. Figuring out how to navigate the world with it; however, is another story—a story for which I hope to, one day, write a beautiful and loving conclusion.

"Cool" at last?

So, I was asked by one of my readers to discuss how I came up with the name for my blog.

I just read that statement again. Did I almost fool you into thinking I was a real official blogging person with readers and something to say and everything? Yeah, I thought so, too. I felt pretty official.

Anyway, there’s not much of a story, because it just kinda came to me. Just like that. And the rest, as they say, is a mystery. At least, I think that’s how the saying goes.

I guess the name really has two parts:

1.) Autodidact. I love the word autodidact. I think I first came across the word in my education class in undergrad and had this moment of “hey, I guess I’m an autodidact!” It’s one of those big words that makes me seem smarter than I am. Plus, the meaning of the word itself makes the whole thing better: I’m a self-taught person, and I can use big words to describe myself! Yeah, that definitely makes me cool.

2.) Poet. Poetry is a love of mine and always has been. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a “poet,” but I like writing poetry, so maybe that puts me in the running to one day own that title. For me, poetry just seems to bypass all the unnecessary words and move into the core, such that it can move gently into the thought, touch it, and back away without all the fuss and commotion of a book or an essay. When you read a poem, you feel a change in you in the same way that you feel a change when music moves through you: it leaves a residue behind that lets you know something has changed you, even if you can’t say exactly how.

I started writing poems at age 4. My mom has it written down somewhere, I swear. It has something to do with spring and includes the words “hip hip hooray.” I have never been so bold as to include those words in a poem again. My writing debut, I guess you could say, occurred when I was published in Byline Magazine when I was still in public school in second grade. It was an issue on Martin Luther King, Jr, and my paragraph was…well…I guess, in a word…uh…profound. So profound, in fact, that I must have felt I was about level with Dr. King himself as my essay started, “I have a dream like Martin.” Yep, as a second grader, Martin and I were tight.

My first real, serious writing endeavors started when I was about 12 with my story entitled “Sam’s Chanukah.” Sam was a hippo who lived with his mother, father, and sister, Maxine, on Neighborly Lane (with a neighbor who wasn’t very neighborly). Sam had several adventures and became the protagonist of a series of stories, complete with illustrations. “Sam’s Chanukah” was the first, followed by “Sam Becomes Homeschooled,” “Sam’s Ballet Class,” “Sam Becomes Vegetarian,” and lastly “Sam Becomes Unitarian Universalist.” I kid you not. Sam went through a series of mishaps in each of these stories—some of which were true to my life and some of which I have no idea where they came from. I was a sarcastic little thing, and that really came through in my Sam stories. To be honest, they still make me laugh. I’m forever grateful to Sam, who taught me how to write dialogue, and taught me about character development. My mom still holds out hope that Sam will become a children’s book series someday. I’m not so sure; whatever muse channeled Sam to me at age 12 has long since moved on to other 12 year olds writing series of stories about Josh the orangutan who takes up meditation, or maybe Rosie the rhino’s visit to a mosque. Or maybe not, and I was just a really strange child, which is more likely the case.

In all of this writing that was going on, though, I never remember anyone ever “teaching” me to write (hence the claiming of the title “autodidact”). Being homeschooled, my education was pretty much me teaching myself a lot anyway. However, I started taking classes at the community college when I was 14, and took my first creative writing class when I was 15. This was a college level course, with a bunch of college age students, and one older woman (Joan). Joan was also in my art class and, seeing as we both stuck out and we had two classes together, she thought we could be friends, and we could have been. Except for the fact that we couldn’t because Joan was, in a word, annoying.

At 15, my goal in life was to blend in. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t do that very well when my mom and sisters had to sit down the hall because I couldn’t drive yet, and the college insisted my mother stay on campus while I was in class. Then, in one class, we could get extra credit if we voted, and everybody looked at me funny because I was the only one who couldn’t get extra credit because I wasn’t old enough to vote. My teacher made a big deal of this, and stated repeatedly that I would just have to study harder than everyone else as he wouldn’t offer any other extra credit (which I didn’t need anyway…so there Dr. Kerr). I also looked very much 15, and very much not 18 or 19. I was shy, I turned beet red insanely easily (some things don’t change), I was still really pretty awkward, and I just wanted to go to class and get out as unobtrusively as possible. And then along came Joan. Joan sat behind me in creative writing, and her pencil seemed to be permanently lodged in my back.

“Does anyone want to share what they wrote?” Ms. Noel would ask. Jab. Joan’s pencil would stick into my back, right between my shoulder blades, causing me to jerk, which in turn, caused my face to turn red. I would, of course, say nothing. Sharing what I wrote was the last thing I ever wanted to do. “No one?” Ms. Noel would push. Jab would go Joan’s pencil until, finally, she couldn’t take it anymore and she would say, “Laura has something to share. I think she wants to share hers.” I swear everybody would roll their eyes as I read. If I wasn’t cool already, my writing made me totally cool, let me tell you. It fit right in. Everyone else wrote sex-crazed poetry and short stories about…well…one guy (yes, guy), wrote a short story about tampons (yes, tampons), while I wrote poems about the leaves changing colors and a story about a young woman who turns out to be an angel. I hated that creative writing class. I learned nothing from it other than how to provide writing feedback to 19 year olds who had worse spelling than my little sister, and how to lose older women who want to be your friend which, I guess, were skills I needed to learn.

How did I achieve this latter goal, you ask? Easy. Joan and I were standing outside of the classroom, and she asked me what church I went to. I told her I was Unitarian Universalist and was met with the typical blinking of eyes as people attempt to understand or interpret that.

“Ohhhh,” she said, blinking and pausing. “So you mean you’re not Christian?”

“No,” I said. Keep in mind that I really didn’t like Joan, and was getting the sense that I could turn her away pretty easily if I kept going in this vein. So I did. “No, my mom was Christian, but now she’s Buddhist, and my dad is Jewish, and we’ve been going to the UU fellowship in town for a couple years.” This is all true. I didn’t lie. I just provided more information than was probably necessary.

“Ohhh,” she said, blinking some more, and trying to sound like all of that actually made sense to her. “So you’re NOT a Christian. Huh. And you’re such a NICE girl!” Her voice evidenced true surprise.

As I said, I was a sarcastic little thing, so my response was something along the lines of, “yeah, funny how that works.” Joan’s pencil never touched my back again.

So, I finished my creative writing class a skeptical, ever popular 15-year-old, and vowed never to take another one. I did try again when I was actually in college for real, and it was a better experience due to the lack of Joan-type people, but I still didn’t enjoy it much. And now I just write. I rather like this whole blogging thing—there’s nobody sticking pencils in my back; I’m not required to provide feedback on anyone’s stories about tampons or otherwise; and I can write about the leaves changing colors, and anyone who may roll their eyes can do so in the privacy of their home. Plus, I have readers who do things like ask questions they want answered, and that makes me feel—in a word—"cool."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Poem: Healing

I have all these words in my head right now that I can’t write. All these thoughts and stories and images that are just unable to be said. I hate when that happens.

And then there are the words and phrases that just pop into my head, that get written suddenly on scraps of paper only to be lost in my purse, or stuck between notes for neuropsychology, or engulfed in the 643 pages of the qualitative research manual. Sometimes, entire poems just fall onto the page. Like this one from a few days ago—I was taking a walk, and by the time I got home it was almost entirely composed in my head. I sat down, typed it out, changed a word or two a few days later. It’s one of those poems that doesn’t make 100% sense to me, but the feeling is right, so it was written. It’s not a masterpiece, but I’m not looking to write masterpieces, and honestly, it comes as close as I can to where I’m at right now. As close as I can to putting a voice to the thoughts in my head.

Healing

Beer bottle smashed
in hundreds of pieces
glistening in the sunlight.

Thrown against the bricks
trashed
by some drunk guy
high
on the power of drunken entitlement
and poor decisions.
Too broken to consider fixing
too sharp to consider cleaning
no ocean to wear down the jagged, cutting edges,
he unknowingly left
a broken, non-reflective mirror on the pavement,
shimmering,
like it could be
something beautiful.

Perhaps this
is what healing
looks like.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Living life in the subjective

A few months ago, I was coming out of a Rite-Aid in a shopping center and was about to get in my car when a man approached me. He had an elaborate story: he was in town from Indiana, came for a job interview, the job turned out to be "bogus," he and his kids were staying at a motel around the corner and they hadn't eaten in a few days because he didn't have any money and didn't have enough money to get gas to leave Ohio and go back to Indiana and they didn't have anywhere to go, and could I spare some money for food for him and his kids? I gave him the two dollars I had in my pocket. Do I believe he had starving kids at the hotel around the corner? Not for a minute. Do I think he came here from Indiana for a job that turned out to be bogus and that he can't buy gas to go back to Indiana? I guess it's possible, but I don't really believe that either. So why, then, did I give him money?

He looked homeless. He hadn't showered in a while. He had long, dirty, blonde curls. He was probably in his 50s and he had piercing blue eyes. He looked right into my eyes when he talked and told me his "story," and I saw lies. I saw lots of lies. But I also saw pain. Lots of pain. He didn't even look like he expected me to believe his story, but I believed his pain, and he knew it. So I did not give money to a man from Indiana trying to buy food for his kids. I gave my money to a man in pain. I gave money to a man who probably did not choose the life he is living, but was living it by necessity. I gave money to a man who is so desperate, has been so wounded by life and society, that he asks people in a parking lot for money. He is probably getting by as best he can, given his history, his circumstances, who he is right now. And I can't blame him for doing the best he can, in that moment.

**********
As I was driving downtown a few weeks ago, I saw a man walking with 2 bags in his hands. He was dressed in a white undershirt and a pair of shorts. He was a big man, who looked rather like the stereotypical "biker" dude--he had a scruffy beard, and burly arms with a tattoo. He walked with a slight lean to the right because of the bags he was carrying, but it gave his step a certain saunter that made him look even more tough.

I stopped at the traffic light right beside him and was watching him walk along as, suddenly, he stopped. He was looking at the ground at what appeared to me to be a bunch of leaves amongst all the other fallen leaves and garbage on the sidewalk. He stared at it for a long while, making me strain in my seat to see what he could be looking at. Then he touched it, ever so gently with his foot, and kept staring. I strained to get a clearer picture of what it could be and finally realized it was a tiny bird.

I continued to watch as he set down his bags beside him, and scooped the tiny creature in both hands. He turned it over, examining it as if in awe, and then gently rubbed the feathers with his giant thumb, smoothing them in a calming and comforting manner.

He looked around, holding the bird awkwardly in front of him in his right hand, then picked up the bags again in his left. He took a few awkward, precarious steps, and then knelt by a small dirt plot by the road. Gently, he laid down the bird, compassion filling his eyes, staring for a moment. The light turned green and I drove away.

**********
When looking at these people I encountered, I realize that I could be any one of them, given different circumstances, different experiences, a different me. I’m not them…but I am, just as they aren’t me and they also are. I understand on this strange “meta” level that we are more alike and more closely connected than even I imagine. When we are so closely connected, and can have such an intimate knowledge of one another’s pain and joy and suffering, how could we not push away, classify an “other” and make ourselves separate?

So in encountering another soul, whether in the grocery store or on the street or in the therapy room, how are we not going to be changed? How are we not going to expand our consciousness and shake our self-world relationship? When doing something as monumental as encountering another person, how could it not shake everything?

You know, I can write these stories down, and I have learned that they can be powerful, but sometimes I feel they are still not really heard. I try to say it aloud, to tell the stories that move my spirit, and I either can’t find the words, or I get responses from people that leave me confused. “The man picked up a dead bird?” people say. I get so I don’t even know what my point is, or what it is that I want from people. I have this undying hope in me that someday I’ll be able to have the conversations that fill me up all the time, not so rarely I never know when they’re coming. I want someone to come to me and say, “So I was in the grocery store the other day and saw this person who…” and relate some story that would tell me they, too, were living and relating as a subjective being with other subjective beings, connecting in an objective world. And when that happens, I will say, “wow…isn’t it amazing when we feel that compassion for complete strangers?” or “I always find it so amazing when you see yourself, or someone you want to be, in a person you might have always ignored.” Or maybe I would just say “you really felt the soul of that person, didn’t you?”

But to say “I looked in that man’s face, and I realized he is doing what he can, just as I am, and I felt this incredible link in humanity that bonded me with him. I felt a power that was beyond me, and beyond him, that just left me in an incredible sense of awe and empathy,” just sounds ridiculous when the response is “But he touched the dead bird?” So I swallow that voice. When it’s too much, I put it in writing in the form of hurting and angry private journal entries that will never see the light of day, or disguise them in my “nice stories.” If I can’t even figure what I want, what I’m asking for, what I need….if I don’t even know what my POINT is…why should I even bother? I can’t ask for and expect something when I don’t even know what that something is.

I’m realizing more and more that the way I live and think and experience the world is different. I also need to learn to respect the way others see and experience the world, because I’m finding that somewhat difficult right now. Some days, I am so full of passion that I want to discuss and share and experience: passion that has always been there, that I haven’t necessarily had words for, or have been too shy or embarrassed or self-conscious to show. But now that I feel it is endangered and that I am losing that clarity and voice, I’ll do anything to bring it back.

As much as I don’t want to lose it, I don’t necessarily like it. There are days and times when I absolutely despise that part of me. I don’t want to be this ball of emotions and energy and feeling. But I also realize that living without that part of me is living without my core, my soul, and what makes me who I am. So I choose to think and feel and breathe and be, and know that one day I’ll find something that will also fill me up. I will find a place where I am needed as myself.

Why (I think) I do what I do

I am in the process of applying for internships for the final year of the doctoral psychology program I have sacrificed my life to for the past several years. As tends to be the case with applications, I am going to need to write several essays trying to impress the Powers-That-Be with my knowledge, dedication, work ethic, values, and future goals, all in 500 words or less. I had to meet with the Director of Clinical Training for my program the other day and discuss my goals for internship, as well as my “readiness.” She asked me what I planned on saying in the essays, and asked why I want to work with children with disabilities—particularly children with the disabilities deemed “severe.” I came up with a brilliantly articulated answer, right the on the spot, and she was so bowled over that she immediately stated, “Laura, you will most definitely get the internship placement you desire.” She smiled. I smiled. I left her office, completely reassured and self-confident.

Actually, that’s not what happened at all. Instead, as I usually do in those sorts of moments, I became incredibly awkward, said something along the lines of, “you know, I’ve been thinking about that lately,” and promptly turned a lovely shade of fuchsia. Being the lovely woman that she is, she said “well, don’t you think it’s important to have an answer for this? Internship sites are looking for some sort of direction and reason. You need to have a reason. Some people have a sibling or a family member with a disability. Is that true for you?”

“Well…sort of,” I hesitated. “But not really.”

“Huh,” she said with a look that read ‘there goes our reputation of getting people into good internships,’ and possibly, ‘check this girl’s GPA later as she seems more dense than I remembered.’ I smiled back with what I hoped was confidence, but was probably the mixture of ‘I strongly dislike you’ and ‘please write me a nice letter of recommendation anyway,’ that I was really feeling. I left her office, feeling completely disheartened, rather idiotic, and very much like I would like to go home and have a drink.

What the Director of Clinical Training doesn’t know, however, is that the question “why do you want to work with people with disabilities?” stirs everything inside me in such a way that I am moved beyond words. What she doesn’t know is that, when I try to answer that simple question, dozens of faces of the children I have learned from flash into my mind, and I am overwhelmed by their beauty and their energy that is still so alive in me. What she doesn’t know is that this work is something that I feel in the core of my being, is what feeds my soul, is what drives me, and I have no idea where it came from, why it’s there, or what sparked it. I only know, in the same way that I know that I must write, that this work is the work I was put here to do. I only know that I have known this, inexplicably, since I was around 10 years old. To summarize this in a sentence is impossible. To summarize it in clinically competent, professional writing, in 500 words or less, takes away everything that is beautiful and meaningful and soul-full in this work and in me. This is why I end up with profound answers like “well, um…I guess I just really like it.”

I was going through some pictures the other day when I was feeling completely burned out with school and life and caring and feeling. I found a picture of me that told a story I had not thought of in quite a while, and in this picture, I remembered why I do what I do—what I wish I had been able to tell the Director of Clinical Training. I work with people with disabilities because of people like Jasmine. This woman, “Jasmine,” was only in my life for two weeks. At 26-years-old, Jasmine was affected by profound mental retardation, severe cerebral palsy, scoliosis, epilepsy, and most prominently, neglect. One night, I sat down with Jasmine and stared at her for a moment, wondering how society could have failed a person so thoroughly and completely. In the two weeks I had worked with her, I had been unable to truly connect with her, and I wondered how I could have also failed this young woman so thoroughly and completely. I had never known it could hurt in my chest and the pit of my stomach just from looking at a person so clearly unable to get what she needed from anything or anyone. Feeling completely hopeless, I unhooked the belt on Jasmine’s wheelchair, put one hand gently around her body and the other under her legs so that I was cradling this 26-year-old woman like an infant. Gently, I sat her in my lap, brushing the hair from her face and soothing her—or more likely myself—with quiet murmurs. I sat for 45 minutes holding her, singing, and talking to her quietly. I got no reaction from her, but there was a place in me that relaxed, knowing that I had done my best. I had tried.

When I began to move to put Jasmine back in her wheelchair, I noticed her eyelids fluttering until, slowly, her eyes opened. Her brown doe-like eyes stared right into me for a moment, searching. It was then, for the first time in 14 days, that I saw her. She looked deep into me with eyes filled with an innocent wonder, intense pain, incredulous curiosity, and immeasurable depth. Those eyes had seen things, felt things, experienced things I could never begin to imagine. Her mouth twitched and then spread wide into a grin as her eyes opened wider and her smile filled both of our souls. We had connected, and I realized what a gift she had given me—the gift of her presence, her beauty, her trust—in a world that had denied and overlooked these gifts for so many years. I knew only two things: I had seen Jasmine, and she was beautiful.

So when people ask me why I want to work with children with “severe disabilities,” I don’t know what to say. I work with people with disabilities because I believe we as a society constantly underestimate and deny what they bring to us and to our world. I believe the people we label as “severely disabled” are waiting, just as we all are, to show ourselves to a world inadequate in communicating with our true selves. I believe every person is a whole and beautiful individual full of life and potential and lessons for all of us, if only we learned to speak one another’s’ language. Because I have seen this, because I know it is there, I see it as my duty to look to that deeper place until I find the person longing for connection in an incomprehensible world that makes no attempt to comprehend. Undoubtedly, eventually, we will meet—if only for a second. When our souls meet in the uncommon ground between us, how could that not be beautiful?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

L'shana Tovah

I love fall. I can’t really explain what it is about it, but it’s something that I feel in every inch of my body. It’s this feeling of being really intensely alive. Know when you’re sitting someplace quiet—like church, or class, or a meeting—and all of a sudden, a giggle rises up out of the pit of your stomach for no apparent reason and just won’t go away? It’s kind of like that, except it’s a giggle that fills every part of my body. The sunshine, the breeze, the smell of fall that is too rich to be captured in words, it’s like walking into my grandmother’s house, taking a bite of my mom’s best lentil soup, or waking up slowly with the sunlight streaming in your window, warm under the blankets on a cold morning. Fall is like coming home to a place in my soul I have been away from for far too long.

Maybe it’s because I’m an October baby that fall feels so wonderful. Maybe it’s because it reminds me of all the places I have been in the fall, all the walks I’ve taken, all the new things I have begun. Maybe in some past life, fall had some really special meaning, I don’t know, but I do know that it has always been this way. When I think of previous autumns, the first thing that comes to mind was being around 10 years old, and sitting with my mom and two younger sisters at the kitchen table “doing school,” whatever that meant for us as homeschoolers at the time. It was around 10 or 11 in the morning, we were all still in our pajamas, and mom was trying to get me to focus on my spelling words. The doors were all open and there was a breeze outside that was coming in and bringing the fall smell inside with it. It was later in the season than it is now—probably mid to late October. As mom was trying to get me to focus on the spelling, I was staring out the window at the birds and squirrels on the back porch, watching the trees, looking at the sky, when suddenly, I remember saying, “LOOK!”

The leaves in the backyard were swirling and flying and being swept up in gusts that kept them aloft for long periods of time, making them dance as if they, too, we filled with joy at the brilliance of the day. My mom and my sisters looked, and my mother sighed. “Go ahead,” she said, closing the spelling book.

I jumped up, skidding my chair backwards a few feet on the floor, and ran outside, barefoot, in my pajamas, through the front yard, around the side of the house, jumped over the hole by the garden, around the back of the house, and just stood in the middle of all the swirling, looking up at the blue sky dotted between the red, yellow, and brown leaves of the trees above me. My sisters followed soon after, dancing and jumping and screaming and laughing. “Wow, do this!” they laughed, throwing leaves into the air. “Look at me flying!” “Watch this big leaf!” I remember closing my eyes while looking up, trying to tune them out: I just wanted to stand in the silence and hear the wind. There was a vague dizziness from closing my eyes that made me smile, and I can remember just feeling that intense aliveness flow through me then. It felt as though my heart was so full of joy, the joy had to be spilling out and radiating into the world. It probably was.

I came inside when the wind died down and wrote a poem that has since disappeared into the place in the universe reserved for the lost thoughts of 10 year old girls. Part of me wishes I knew what I wrote then, what my thoughts in the moment were, rather than the thoughts of the 24 year old me imposed on the 10 year old in my memory. On the other hand, it doesn’t really matter, though. The joy, the wonder, the comfort is still there all the same.

One of the things I love about Unitarian Universalism is being able to take pieces of various religions and incorporate them into my life. One of the things I love about being half Jewish is that Judaism is easily a part of my religious repertoire, so to speak. While the intricacies of the religion and the holidays elude me to a large extent, Judaism for me is the feelings associated with my big, overwhelming, loud, Jewish family. It’s a feeling that smells like too many aunts with too much perfume; sounds like a combination of Hebrew, Yiddish, and Baltimore-ese; and tastes like Aunt Faygie’s kugel, gefilte fish from Lenny’s deli, and Bubby’s charoset and matzo ball soup.

Today marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year. One of the “high holy days,” Rosh Hashanah is a day of remembrance and a day of judgment. Seeing as my conceptualization of god is a little different, and I don’t really get into the whole “day of judgment” book of death vs. book of life thing, I do like the idea of this beautiful day in fall as being the beginning of a new year. For some reason, this time of year just makes more sense to me to be a new start. As I am falling into the autumn months, I am noticing how alive I feel, because it is no longer something I take for granted. The blueness of the sky, the color of the sunshine on the leaves, the way the sun feels on my shoulders—I never could have imagined that there would be a time when these things felt empty. I feel I was cheated--or perhaps cheated myself--out of much of spring and summer by missing these things. It took me coming home to fall to be able to feel god again. Perhaps it is the memory of the 10-year-old me radiating joy outside in the leaves that awakened me. Perhaps it is the love I have for her, who had no shame, no inhibition, nothing between herself and her delight in the universe that held her safely in its hands. Walking today, I remembered again that I still hurt, but realized that, maybe, if I let it, the universe will hold me again, safely and securely. As I let the sun and the breeze and the smells fill me, I realized that maybe I can also love the 24-year-old me, who still has moments of silent joy radiation.

Maybe I just need a new beginning. Maybe I just want a "do-over" for the last few months. Maybe I'm homesick and missing Maryland in the fall, missing going to Bubby's house for high holy days. But I also know that, even though I didn't eat them at Bubby's table, the apples and honey I ate with lunch tasted right, and gave me hope in this moment that things will be sweeter in the next few months than they have in the past few. If I listen hard enough, I can almost hear my grandmother's voice saying "It's going to be a good year, Baruch HaShem, we'll all have a good, sweet year, and we've all got good health, so kenahora, right? L’shana Tovah, hon."

L'shana Tovah!

Monday, September 6, 2010

On writing

So I finally caved. I've thought about starting a blog off and on for years now, kept a periodic Livejournal for a while, and have been journaling since I was about 7 years old. I've always had a reason why I wouldn't start a blog, namely "nobody wants to read my writing. Why would anybody want to read my writing?" Or "I don't really have anything to say." Or "I'm too busy." I guess we all have our hangups, and the busy excuse is valid, but I'm happy to say that I am over the other two. The past couple months have taught me that I have A LOT to say, damnit, and people are just gonna have to listen. So hold on people...here I come.

And so, the next big step is to venture out into the blogosphere and put my writing out there. It feels a little like tossing one of those "helicopter" seed pods from the maple tree out into the wind. Who knows where it's going to go, where it's going to land? It's just spinning, spinning, spinning, and potentially holding something big and beautiful.

I love writing. As I said, I've been keeping a journal since I was around 7. I started out with an "American Girl" journal that had prompts on some pages, and small, dated boxes on others. There wasn't much room for creativity, so my entries primarily consisted of things like "Little sisters are so annoying! J called me "possum breath" and I called her a "skunk tail" and she told Mommy and Mommy told me to be nice! Ugh!" The prompted questions weren't much better. I answered the question "What is the nicest thing your mother has ever done for you?" with "She bought me 'My Magic Tea Party!!!!'" I think I played with that set exactly twice before the cups stopped changing colors and I went back to using the dirt-caked spoons, plastic buckets with broken handles, and rusted-out pots in the treehouse. They made better tea anyway.

I kept at it, though, and kept a journal regularly until my first year of graduate school when it became practically illegal to use the words "writing" and "fun" in the same sentence. Luckily, I've got this inner rebel spirit that is dying to come out now and just doesn't care if the dissertation is finished or not; I have something to say, and it's going to be said NOW. I've been writing for myself again, but have wanted to share it. I want people to see it and to hear it, because I am finally comfortable with the fact that I have something to say. I finally realized in a deeper way that my words can indeed move people. My words can change people. My words can spark thoughts and conversations in me and in someone else. My words may even be able to make a difference. Recognizing that I have that power, and seeing that power as beautiful and wonderful, makes me feel like I have come home. Like I can fall into myself and inhabit my body and my mind in ways that I haven't allowed myself to before. Allowing myself to see that my words have value, and that I can connect deeply to myself and others through the written word gives me chills. It is the most powerful gift I could possibly give myself.

I have a professor from undergrad that I have recently been in contact with again. He is someone I have shared my writing with, and is also someone who just really understands and feels the importance of words and of writing the way I feel it and know it. He said recently in an email "your desire to move to voice and writing are powerful; and to me they are also lovely--lovely in the sense of being love-full, because they are so much about clarity, and truth, and resistance, and anger, and accountability; and about justice and caring for the world by calling out the injustice and cruelty in the world."

That is why I write. I write because I am love-full and because I am angry. Because I am sad and disillusioned, and because I am joyful and alive. I write to come as close to saying the truth as I possibly can, and I write to expose the places where the truth is hidden. I write to hold myself and others accountable for what they do in this world, to this world, to others, to themselves. I write because I get tired and overwhelmed by the injustices and the cruelty, and writing is the only way I know to call out those injustices in ways that can be heard. I write to connect to people in ways that encourage heart connections that don't necessarily get tapped by daily life. For a while, I didn't write--or did write and didn't see it as truly worthwhile. But then, life twisted and turned and changed and I HAD to write. I no longer have a choice. I cannot say that things happen for a reason, but I know that I must write. My writing is a form of truth and a way of making meaning. I write because of the connections it makes, because of the way it connects me to life, to people, and to myself. I write because I love.