Thursday, April 29, 2010

On Becoming

As a worker in the social services, one of the great opportunities for learning comes from encounters with former clients, years after working with them. It’s a mixed bag experience that has taught me both humility and hope. It’s shown me both he power of small kindnesses and contributions, and the futility of grand plans.

Today I visited Anthony, a now 36 year old, Black male from Trinidad. Anthony is doing so well, and he knows it. Not that there aren’t disappointments, losses and hurts yet to deal with. But he’s gained perspective over the years, perspective which has made him less bitter, slower to combat, more aware and grateful when fortune and opportunity swing his way. This is maturity and wisdom I never truly believed Anthony would gain.

Thus my learning. It comes from an endless stream of the unforeseen that each encounter with a former client feeds into.

We students of human nature and human ways – which is one of the things that social workers are – are forever thinking we’ve come to a “knowing” about who and how people are. It’s not inappropriate that we so speculate; the work calls for it. We are about helping people to change their circumstances, and usually that involves encouraging and motivating them to act in ways we hope will move them toward ends they desire. It’s work that requires a continuous effort to understand.

Often though, we think we’ve reached an end point in the refinement of a theory of human ways, when really we’ve only come to a juncture, a useful intersection of life and knowledge that may tell us very little about the corner that’s up ahead.

So the Anthonys, who upset our predictions – happily and tragically – are useful and humanizing correctors. He and others, in living out the determined seeds or dreams of their becoming, teach us to temper our own analysis of the dynamic forces of life we try to tame and influence.

The most startling shock to my arrogance in predicting the end road of my clients came in a pair of encounters, with two young men I worked with in a group home in Seattle decades ago. The two of them were stereotypically opposites. One, I’ll call him Ralph, was the perfectly self-aware, respectful and cooperative kid, a favorite of all the staff, quick to come to us for advice, inviting us to know him and to help him navigate the road from a dysfunctional family to something resembling normalcy. The other, Frank, was a spoiled, self-absorbed and angry manipulator, who violated every rule and sabotaged every activity, and terrorized the other residents mercilessly. Their destinies seemed so clear. Ralph, we all knew, was destined for a responsible and satisfying life; Frank would surely end up in prison, or dead.

But years later, when a volunteer program bought me deep into the bowels of Shelton prison, it was Ralph sitting there among a group of inmates, convicted of assault and kidnapping and part way into a years long sentence. And awhile later, while attending a meeting of community leaders, it was Frank who was brought along as a promising protégé of a program director, and introduced as a creative and dynamic youth leader at the university he was attending.

This was the most shocking upset to my prognosticating powers, but there were many others. And it isn’t the predicting that’s the problem really. It’s the belief in what is foreseen, sometimes a commitment to it, that leads to options being offered or withheld, that confirms preferences and prejudices, that qualifies approval or represses a necessary confrontation. It’s thinking that I know a person’s insides better than I do, and that I can therefore judge.

So Ralph and Frank, and today, Anthony, have been important teachers to me with their surprises. I’ve learned over the years not to credit too much my insights into the workings of another human being. Many times I’ve had to see that the choice I recommended with deep conviction was not the right one, or that the explanation for an act or an omission failed to take a key factor into account. People may be stubborn and slow to change, but deep change can come unexpected and in an instant, even to the one making the choice.

And, I’ve learned that, with all our attempts to teach, coach, support, mold, even control, it isn’t always possible to know what another human being hears when you say the words you say, or what they feel when you engage them, or what part of your offerings they will hold close, even live by, years after you’ve forgotten you offered them.

It was so good to see Anthony today. He has grown so much since I worked with him. That he was glad to see me tells me that I was in some way useful to him when he felt so angry and alone. But I take no credit for who he has become. And I stand in wonder at the power and mystery of his becoming.

Monday, April 26, 2010


This moment
This Year
In this Lifetime

Progressively diluting versions of presence
Decreasingly focused experiences of Here - This Place

At the moment of conception my entire History was Now
A moment later I acquired a past, and ever since I've been trying to escape it
to find my way back to Now, back to that eternal, singular moment

I brust at it. It brushes me.
But miracles are still too precious
I cannot simply let one by without wanting to hold it a little while
turning it into memory
and I am suddenly in my past again

The Flowers are still too beautiful not to want to pick them
take them home with me

Grateful for times I cannot think
when words and names fail to rise above the clamor of life all around
I become still, in one form or another
I slow down to the speed of Earth

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Manifestations of Earthling Beauty

Looking at 22 year old Sarah yesterday
with her wispy Mohawk, newly dyed, buzz cut to either side,
basking in the warm sun in a tank top.
The hair is now a cross of purple and pink
the bruised eye is healing back to normal.

She is beautiful, head tilted by her ever interested smile.
It's her vital, escapist enery, her hopefulness, the innocence enduring, however much the exposure to corruption and death.
She lost her father - to suicide - just a month ago, and my guess is that it's hardly registered.
She says as much - that it doesn't seem real. And she cannot understand why.
How could she, with that edgy, gawky, all limbs newness of a newborn colt
driven by the outward focused energy she doesn't even know is born to her
the engine of her bones, her questioning
behind all the dances she will invent.

She made me think of all the various forms of beauty,
including the ugly seeming ones
Because her glow had been invisible to me, hidden within the emaciated waif, the lost, clueless orphan, dancing in puddles and accepting candy from preying strangers.
Beauty then was only in the eye of the desperately beholden.

But thank Creation for these eyes anyway - seeing Ugly or seeing Beauty, it's all the same. Another facade of the mysterious.
Shadings and light, mood and temperment. Timing.
The order of things - chicken or egg, morning or night, death or life, ascension or fall.
The things that are to come that I cannot yet know.

What roads will Sarah Caine follow? What highways will discover her, alone, seeing her father all anew, and beginning to feel that hurt inside, all the places in her heart he will only revisit in her imagination, or in her dreams, or in her blaze of faith that Good things happen, and there is a tomorrow where forgetfulness is served up in spoonfuls of light and possibility.

She will surely find her way away and back again. She has these roads to travel, limits to discover and ignore, the impossible to achieve and make commonplace, even forgetful, before age and time will capture her, will mold her into something less earthling
but more and more achingly human.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What It's About

Years ago, at a hippie fair in Eugene, Oregon, I bought a chunk of obsidian from a merchant, who told me that, being volcanic glass, it's chief property, so far as humans are concerned, is that it draws up that which is buried deep inside, and releases it to spaciousness. It seemed the perfect metaphor and catalyst for me, who's always yearned to have a fuller voice, and to mix up my insides with all of what was outside.
I consider these offerings to be the shape that deeper stuff takes when it hits the air, where dream stuff hits the ground, how imagination meets an opening in the day, when another's face is opened to me, the ways possibility enters a room.
Yes, even molten glass can blossom.