Thursday, December 31, 2015

Fade-In to Tomorrow

The workday is over, the day fades, and the long, busy year passes into memory.
And what happens to it there? Does it merely fade? I know that it changes shape as well, as some things fade from importance, and others grow in significance.
I don’t want to even pretend that I know what this past year has been. It feels like it’s been rich and full of contradictions, and being pulled in different directions. This blog has been caught up in the tidal, back and forth pull of priority. For a time, in the Spring, I reconnected to writing here again, and also to producing my jazz Podcast. Then, months ago, this blog fell away again, and I hardly noticed. But the podcast continues. And there was no plan for any of it, except to try and stay engaged.
If something has become clearer in the year it’s the presence of holes. Holes that will not be obscured by ignoring them. Holes in personal relationships, for one. There are relationships I’ve ignored, undervalued and lost. And there are others that have remained and even grown stronger, despite my inattentions, or maybe because not all friends value and need the same thing.
There’s the hole that has emerged in my narrative, in what I write, think about, in what I use to explain myself, to myself as well as to others. This blog has made this gap in particular very vivid. Because, more and more often my writing stops when I come face to face with some aspect of my life that I’m reluctant to share with the friends and with the strangers that may read my blog. I didn’t realize how wide some of these gaps are. They touch on what I think my “purpose” is, on ideas of commitment and loyalty, and they cover huge swaths of what falls under the categories “sex” and “relationship”. Large gaps, some with answers that are within reach, but will require courage to grasp; some for which the answers are faint, others for which they are frightening; and there are those gaps for which there are no answers at all.
Gratitude and gain make themselves known through all this wandering in wondering. And I realize, with some surprise, that I am grateful not only for those simple answers that rise up and are a comfort in my hand or heart. I am also grateful, maybe even more grateful, for realizing that answers are very often incomplete, superficial, and over-valued. One of the beautiful prizes is to find no answer at all. Maybe to discover that some pressing question was not that at all, but more of an ardent affirmation of what had no fixed, accepted place. Because yes, those mis-placed, unrecognized, dismissed urges and knowings and longings do scream, they do. They make themselves known, and we mistakenly think it’s all about our questions, about what we think we need to know, to figure out, to achieve.
But the hero of this brief essay, if there needs to be one beyond you and me, is the Fool. The first card of the Tarot, the innocent in the world, the ultra present one who thinks not a second about anything that isn’t NOW. The Fool is forever stepping over cliffs and into ditches, stumbling open eyed into various manifestations of the unknown. I will walk into 2016 with my arm interlocked with his, an unknowing grin on my face, ready for whatever comes!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Best Ever

One of my great joys in life is reading a book and, upon finishing it, feeling, with passion, appreciation, and a little sadness, that it’s the best book I’ve ever read. I’ve experienced this joy many, many times. And NO, there is no contradiction in that.

Because, being the best book I’ve ever read is not a relative thing, and it’s not something that will necessarily endure any tests of time. It’s a valuation of a moment – usually a long moment: a few hours or days, sometimes longer – but a moment all the same.
Of course, I’m being very un-literal here. But if you love books, or paintings, or movies, or music, or dance, or sex (and really, there are so, so many different experiences of life that this feeling relates to) I’m sure you know what I'm writing about.
It’s about being so immersed in an experience – in this case, a work of art – that it becomes the world, blots out everything else, re-defines reality…for that long moment. It’s about a creation over-flowing its boundaries and invading your senses, so that, for a time, you live inside of it, and your life is exploded beyond normal you. You learn to think and feel and to BE a different way.
As you might suppose, I’m currently reading the BEST BOOK EVER. (Yes. I admit, I haven’t even finished it, and I already know it’s the best ever!) It’s The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden. I’m not going to try telling you what it’s about, or anything like that. Only that it’s powerful, beautiful, devastating, and that it is re-creating the world I know and live in. And that you should read it.

And, not so very long ago, I read another BEST BOOK EVER. That was Room, by Elizabeth Donoghue. Again: devastating, powerful, beautiful. (What else can you say when an artist creates an entire new world, out of bits of your own world that you thought you knew, but didn’t really.)

Okay. I know I’m writing nonsense here. It just happens to be true nonsense. When you are brought entirely into a world, even an imagined one, even an ugly and brutal one, as each of these happens to be, it becomes real. And when that reality is so sharp and clear that it resonates with all you know, and takes in and somehow makes clear-er, so much that you didn’t know, and even what you didn’t know that you didn’t know, well, relativity flies out the window, and there is only room left for superlatives.

There are movies I could write this about, and sunsets, and songs, and afternoons with the one I love, and…you get the point. Life is full of the Best Ever. This one just happens to be a book.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


Lately, I've been noticing how much I've been influenced - for the better - by acquaintances or complete strangers. Like most people, I think, I have a sense of my own independence and individuality. It's empowering to carry the notion that I'm my own man, with a mind of my own, walking my own path toward my unique, individual destiny. But of course Life has demonstrated to me how packed full of delusion and mythology those notions are.

I can't deny that just about everything I do is substantially influenced - if not determined outright - by a multitude of factors, including my culture, the media, my genetic inheritance and the conditioning powers of advertising and a formal education. It would be absurd of me to think that I dress myself, that I reach my own conclusions about politics or on social issues, or that I had much of anything to say about the foods I like.

Even so, It's empowering to think that I take all that and arrive at something of my own, independent of all these influences. So how do I explain the many ways in which my course has been drastically shifted by the odd conversation, an offhand suggestion, or an idle comment?

Awhile ago, an acquaintance who has lost a lot of weight, attributed his new physique to the hours he spends on his bicycle. The very next day, I was on the bike that had been chained up in my yard for most of the Spring, collecting cobwebs. And a colleague recently moved me to make an effort to get back to meditating regularly, by mentioning that he'd gotten his practice back on track. And a few months ago, a health professional I was consulting on a totally unrelated matter, suggested that I get hooked up with a writing group, advice I followed up on just a couple of weeks later, to great result.

None of these nudges were odd or unique in any way. In fact, all the actions that resulted were things I was thinking about to some degree, or things I knew I should do, but just hadn't gotten around to. They were actually all pretty obvious. I simply hadn't done them. But in all cases, getting the suggestion from a person I liked and respected made all the difference. And I'm intrigued by that.

It occurs to me that the effect of these nudges was much like the effect a deadline often produces. In both instances, there's a sense of immediacy that comes into the equation, and my will is mobilized in a way it wasn't before. But the nudge has a much more personal dimension to it than the deadline.

But this is something I don't really feel a need to break down and analyze until I understand it. I know that I feel grateful for them. I feel like I've been gifted by these acts, which each seems to involve aspects of sensitivity and of sharing. And as I think back, there've been so many!

There's one more nudge I have to mention. This blog was started as a result of an idle conversation with a stranger while standing in front of a bike shop. When she learned I was a writer, she immediately began to share the benefits she'd received from blogging, and she pressed me to start one myself. And I, who'd been very idly considering looking into it, for months if not years, took the plunge a short while later. And the rewards I've gotten from blogging have been transformative. I'll do a post about them someday.

In the meantime, I'm feeling much less caught up in the mythology of my independence. I'm deeply appreciative of these nudges that come, mostly unexpected and casual. I intend to hold myself open for more.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Story to Tell

We all have one, I've been told.
Each of us has a compelling story that relays our experience, our truth, in a way that is unique to us. A story that entertains, engrosses, informs; perhaps one that inspires. A story which, when told, will gain us entry into the hearts and minds of others and plant something there.

But all such sayings have exceptions, don't they.
I've known a few dull souls I wouldn't believe you could wring a good story out of anymore than you could out of a rock. There's this guy I once worked with, selling encyclopedias at the North Carolina State Fair, who was one of them.

This guy - let's call him Larry, I really don't remember his name - he was a real lump of a guy. Big and dough-faced; quiet and stiff, he was the guy we'd all forget to ask along when we went for lunch or a beer. We weren't intentionally excluding him; it's just that we'd forget he was there. It's a wonder he ever sold any books, but every now and then he'd make a sale to one of those people who really wanted a set but just didn't want to have to put up with any sales talk or pressure. And Larry - any one could tell with a glance - was safe that way. There really wasn't any personality there that you'd have to deal with.

Maybe it sounds mean, but I just couldn't imagine that a guy like Larry would ever have anything interesting to say. Even if he did, how'd you ever get it out of him? He seemed so isolated in his stodginess that he wouldn't know or care if another human being was trying to reach out to him.
That's just how much of a lump he was.

Which makes it all the more surprising that we talked that day, and that he said what he said, that did what it did to me, I cannot deny. It's not like I was trying to be friendly, or draw him out. How many ways can I say it: I never believed there was anything in him to draw out. I guess it's that it was the end of a long day of standing on our feet,  trying to draw mooches into the booth, hit the quota that would make the travel and the motel and the greasy fair food worth being on the road for so long.

And maybe it was that - being on the road - that got him started. I really don't remember. But he got started talking somehow, and when he did, the talk became him. It wasn't interesting, really; it wasn't bonding or anything. He talked like the lump he was, no disparagement intended. That's just the truth.
And I listened. To every word. Because he had a story after all.

"I used to be a truck driver, back when I lived in Minnesota, before I come here, because my daughter is here with the grand kids. I drove cause the driving didn't bother me. I don't mind it. Not a bad job. Just long hours. But I don't mind. It's just drivin. And the pay's okay. And it's just you and the road.

"Bonnie got sick and went into hospital. I stayed home at first. We didn't know how bad it was, really. and they kept saying they wanted to keep her awhile longer. So finally, Bonnie says I ought to just go back on the road, because no sense in me just sitting around with her all day in the chair beside her bed, watching the tv, which was tiny and didn't have a good picture, nor good sound, so you really couldn't even hear it. I might as well be sittin in my rig she said. Bills was still gonna need payin. So I says okay and pick up a load, going to Georgia. But I'd come right back, I told her, and I did come right back.

"And when I got back, she was worse. Way worse. Cancer, of course. I stayed, and I thought everything would be just fine. I think she did too. But she kept getting worse. And then they put her on more drugs, but it didn't help. And then she lost consciousness, just like that. I didn't know, and I don't think she knew, that we'd never even get the chance to say goodbye. The last thing I remember her saying was to switch of that television, cause she was ready to try and sleep. And she never came to after that.

"And then she was dead. Just two days later."

Larry didn't say anything for awhile, and I didn't say anything either. It was like his talking, and the quiet of him not talking, were the same sound, just flowing together.

"I got up after awhile. After just sitting there with her. And I went and got my rig and down to the office, and had them sign me out a load. It was for Oregon, and I set right out. A day and a half. When I dropped it, I picked up another load, to Cheyenne, then another one to San Diego. They didn't have the limits then, and they only cared if a haul was too slow, so nobody said anything. I couldn't sleep anyway. From San Diego I caught a load to St. Augustine, then back to Amarillo. Then North again, but I didn't take any loads for Minnesota. Anyplace else.

"I don't remember sleepin. What passed for it wasn't sleepin at all. Wasn't restful. The buzzin in my head would get loud and I'd lay down in back of the rig long enough for it to go away. Then I'd drive.
I'd just drive.

"North Dakota. Down near Dallas, back to Cheyenne, and that same haul to San Diego again. I took a load to Cleveland, then New Hampshire, back to Cleveland, then Seattle and back down to San Diego. I remember it so clear, like I was building something, and each trip added a piece to it, like another strip, another layer. Everytime I dropped a load, I picked another one up. And I'd drive right away, at least an hour or two, before I'd stop to lay my head or for something to eat. And I'd drive again, as soon as I could.

"Two weeks. Two weeks before I started to come out of it. I was in eastern Washington, in the desert there, heading east for Idaho. Early morning, and the sun was coming up. And all these colors started coming up out of that desert. It surprised me. And I thought how Bonnie would've liked that. She would've said something about it, about how pretty it was.

"And then I thought about it, and I figured it was time to go home, to see after Bonnie."

That was it. That was Larry's story. He never changed expressions all the while he spoke. And he never said anything else about his wife. But I never heard grief and loss expressed in such plain words before.

Yes. Everybody's got a story.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Dismissed

I've been distracted and a little depressed about the most recent firing in my work place last week. First, there was the terse email announcement from management that, as of that day, our colleague of the past several years was no longer affiliated with the organization.  A few minutes later, an email was received from the colleague, confirming that he was gone, telling us he'd enjoyed working with us, and wishing us well.

Though our connecting has fallen off quite a lot in the last year, due to the usual demands of life, the dismissed colleague was one of the people in my workplace whom I considered a friend, with whom I socialized away from the job, with whom I discussed some of the bigger questions of life in a deep way. I will miss his presence, his intelligence, his sensitivity.

What has followed me like a cloud these last days is frustration not only at my colleague's treatment, but at the state of "human resource management" in this day and age, and in this culture, that his treatment reflects. I'm saddened by the mechanical and legalistic way of dealing with human beings that has become so commonplace. The workplace has become so liability sensitive that normal, human-to-human communication is constrained or prohibited outright in just those situations where it's most needed.

There are methods of managing firings that have become standard and accepted practice:
- management cannot/will not discuss any aspects of a dismissal or what brought it about, often not even with the dismissed employee.
- the dismissed employee is cut off immediately from the workplace and colleagues. Most often, the individual is never again seen on the premises, and if so, only under the watchful eye of security, to insure that only personal items are removed, and that no unfortunate interactions take place.

I'm not advocating against all dismissals. Employees don't always meet expectations. They may lack the skill, the work ethic, or the motivation to do a job well. Sometimes a bad employment situation comes down to a bad fit, and all parties concerned will benefit from a separation. My grievance is with the manner in which these separations take place. How is it that a person can be a colleague and part of a team one day, and an afterthought the next? The dismissed are treated like worn parts, easily replaced and forgotten, as though their struggles and contributions had no meaning and are not worth mentioning. The way they are dismissed without a backward glance calls to mind the practice of revisionist history under repressive regimes: controversial individuals and events are simply deleted from the text books and aren't to be mentioned, as though they never existed, never occurred?

It's a heartless system, but also something of a mindless system. Because it ignores the possibilities for individual and systemic growth and learning. It ignores (or at least fails to profit from) the reality that all learning and success comes from trial and error, from being aware of what goes wrong and trying to understand why. If a person has been part of an organization's development, has participated in the cycles of trial and error, experimentation and analysis, failure and success, and a time comes when the relationship is no longer working, is simply deleting the relationship really the way to go? Is there no more favorable way to acknowledge and respect the accumulated individual and organizational experience?

Yet, we've all been conditioned to believe that the formalities of this current process are absolutely necessary, the only way. The possibility of appeals and law suits seems to have overridden common sense and basic sensitivity, as well as the desirability of simple, honest talk, good-byes, acknowledgements, well wishes. All of this saddens me.

But it angers me too. Particularly because I work in social services for the city of Toronto. Fundamental to the work of my program is a progressive and compassionate approach to dealing with human beings. We aim to be client-centered, thereby basing our activity on our clients' well-being, on their autonomy and choice, and in full recognition of their strengths, assets, and their inherent value as human beings. This approach stems from an underlying respect for people, and the assumptions that they desire good, can make a contribution, are more and better than their shortcomings, and are good to have around. When we have occasion to end a relationship with a client, we make ourselves accountable for doing so in the least harmful and disruptive manner possible.

But the approach to dealing with the service providers of the enterprise is very different. It's more of a business model. Employees are treated as commodities with uncertain shelf life and usage value - any one of them might go bad at any moment. Therefore, when an employee's level of performance slips to an undesirable level, or when other factors emerge that corrupt the quality of performance, the solution can be abrupt dismissal. It's very true that, short of dismissal, there are many provisions for employee health and support. But, when dismissal occurs, it is generally sudden and brutal. There is little consideration of the employee's life circumstances, their social and psychological issues and needs. It seems that no thought is given to the effect that a sudden (and often unexplained) dismissal can have on an individual's self-esteem, sense of security and health. And what of those left behind, who experience such sudden loss and disruption, and sometimes confusion and stress?

What distresses me most is the drastic difference, conflict even, between the values by which clients are treated, and those by which staff are treated. Can a work environment encompassing such a schism be healthy? Can clients be served optimally, when those delivering the service see the values they operate by undermined within the very workplace? I don't think so.

I don't see this as a problem caused by individual managers. We have a fine group of them in my workplace. The just discharged employee was one of them. They are neither unkind, nor insensitive. But we all operate in an environment in which this way of doing business is accepted as the norm. Not so long ago, discrimination against racial or gender minorities, excluding women from positions of authority, and sexual harassment were all considered workplace norms. While unfortunate, they reflected "human nature" or "the way things are". The burden was on victims to adjust, be tough, go along with the program, in order to survive and get ahead. And, in truth, individuals have rarely if ever been able to change such accepted modes of behavior. Only when it is understood that these systemic patterns have broad repercussions that compromise the integrity of entire organizations and communities do we begin to take note.

I believe that this is such a case. The way that employees are dismissed deeply affects the way that other employees view an organization and their role in it. It affects their sense of trust, and of being trusted and valued. It affects the degree to which they are willing to give of themselves to their work. It affects the precarious balance they maintain between taking chances and playing it safe, between going the extra mile and covering one's own ass.

When I initially applied to work for the city, I was attracted by the slogan, then being displayed on job postings, "Work for the City that you Love". It was a phrase that might have easily been dismissed as, well, propaganda. But it came to life for me because it was true. It concisely expressed an ideal that most of us aspire to: to do work that is personally meaningful, because to do so elevates the activity beyond mere work. But the dispiriting manner in which employees can so suddenly have their service dismissed - as though it were less valuable than mere work - influences one to pay scrupulous attention to the letter of one's job description, and little attention to its spirit.

I know there are some who applaud a straightforward adherence to tasks and technicalities. But ultimately, our work is Service - provided face to face, person to person. I sincerely believe that in our work, the service of "being with" others in their most difficult times - listening, sharing, caring, understanding - is as valuable as linking them to tangible services like housing, counseling and case management. And that work of "being with" requires an ethic to support it. And for such an ethic - in this case, a valuing of human beings - to hold sway, it must be applied with some consistency.

Otherwise, we lose faith, the spirit is diminished and grows cold, our clients - and we ourselves - begin to feel that we are in the grip of programs and processes and policies, and that our value is determined by some bottom line. What we want and need to feel, I believe, in that we are engaged with our fellows in improving lives - all of our lives - and that we are jointly building and sustaining a City that Loves us Back!

Monday, March 30, 2015

ISIS, Nat Turner & the War on Evil

Whenever one of my communities rises up in fear, anger and outrage, and seeks to wage a war against EVIL, I try to put a damper on my emotion, to force myself to look beyond the obvious. And I recall Nat Turner.

How many people today remember who Nat Turner was?

ISIS scares the hell out of me, as it apparently intends to do. It is seeking - with apparent succees - to draw the non-Muslim world, and the Shiites, moderates and other non-extremists within the Muslim world into a conflict to bring on the End of Time. I recently had my understanding of ISIS deepened considerably, by reading the article, "What ISIS Really Wants", the feature article by Graeme Wood in the March issue of the Atlantic ( If I was afraid before reading it, this article took me a couple of levels deeper into my fear, because it argues a kind of inevitability to the path that ISIS is marching. I had persuaded myself that the single-minded and merciless warfare of ISIS, offering destruction to anyone or anything that opposed its One Creed worldview, could not possibly stem from the core of Islam, any more than the hyper-racism of Nazis or the KuKluxKlan stem from the core of Christianity, in my view. Wood, in his article, argues otherwise, and with a heavyweight roster of Islamic scholars backing his view.

So what to do? My gut desire is to see every possible step taken to simply wipe ISIS and what it represents from the face of the Earth. And this feeling - generated by fear and the hate that follows - is direct and strong and sure enough that it causes me to support any political effort to send arms, soldiers, planes, money...anything necessary to bring this about.

The success of ISIS will bring about the end of so much - maybe everything - that I value in life. No time or space here for half measures, for diplomacy, compromise, cultural or religious sensitivity and understanding. This is a clear instance of GET THEM BEFORE THEY GET ME!!!

But again, I am compelled, by memory, by history, by the passionate reasoning of a good friend (you know who you are), and by the story of Nat Turner, to slow myself, to get hold of my passions, and to look and think more deeply.

In 1831, the name Nat Turner evoked the same sense of terror, of rampant evil, of immanent death and destruction that ISIS evokes in much of the world today. Nat Turner's actions, on the 21st of May of that year invaded the imaginations of gentle, settled, civilized people, with the spectre of the world turned on its head, of demonic fanatics set lose to inflict their wickedness upon the godly, of Satan ascended from Hell and determined to bring about the apocalype. His act of terrorism lasted all of two days, during which time fifty-five or more white men, women and children were killed. Ironically, Turner claimed he was inspired to his acts by visions from God.

Why did this happen? Does it matter why? Does anything matter beyond stopping such a any cost, and from preventing anyone from ever again unleashing such evil?

In anger, we want to shout, NO! There is no reason. Because reasons can become justification. And justification can force consideration, and understanding...even compassion. And in the face of terror, who has room for understanding and compassion. Destoy the offenders of Peace. And maybe later, maybe after they've been wiped from the Earth, there will be time and space for a little understanding and compassion. Maybe.

Except it possible to prevent a thing from recurring without understanding how and why it came about?

And...doesn't the fear response to terror override our ability to look honestly into the causes that generated that terror in the first place?

Nat Turner was an African slave in pre Civil War Virginia, in the United States. He was property in a society that denied his humanity. He was caught up in a system that brutally suppressed him and his kind. He had no recourse within his world to address the evil being imposed on him. And so he responded to atrocities, by God's direction, with atrocities of his own.

Naturally the citizens of rural Virginia were terrified at the Nat Turner uprising. And, very naturally, the anger, desperation and fear unleashed by that revolt left them little room for contemplation and reflection about the horrors of their own society that led to the rebellion of anger and hate.

When the uprising was quelled, not only were the conditions that generated it not explored. Slavery was intensified, made even harsher. Scores of slaves were killed, and the controls on slaves throughout the south were tightened. Repression endured, and became one of the factors to generate a brutal Civil War, thirty years later. And though slavery ended, oppression and rebellion did not, but endure to this day. Because, even now, root causes have never been thoroughly explored and rooted out.

Does any of this make ISIS any more benign, any more forgiveable? No, it doesn't.

But it does force me to consider, before I join the cry for "an eye for an eye": How did this threat arise in the first place? Is this really as simple a matter as Good versus Evil? And, considering that ISIS too paints the world in exactly these tones, defending itself as the champion of God, and the rest of us as steeped in evil.... Shouldn't this give me pause?

I'm not interested in defending ISIS, any more than I would expect a white person in 1831 Virginia to defend Nat Turner after experiencing the slaughter of innocent loved ones. But I don't think it's too much to hope that someone at that time understood that, on some level, the dehumanization that their society profited from and depended on, played a role in bringing those atrocities to pass.

And likewise, while my passions are inflamed by the videos of beheadings, and the reports of mass executions, and the calls for peace-loving people in my community to be randomly killed, I have to ask myself: what evil, what dehumanization, is being done in my name? And while I don't know the ins and outs of politics and religion and history in the Middle East, I do know, absolutely, that drones are being sent into residential communities, to kill those deemed our enemies, while the death of innocents is excused as "collateral damage". I know that hundreds of individuals, who have done nothing, have been tortured and imprisoned, without due process, for years at a time. I know that an entire war was launched against Iraq, and many thousands killed, in retaliation for actions it had no part in, and based of manufactured evidence. Are these acts not the epitome of dehumanization, of evil? And do these acts have nothing to do with the advent of ISIS, and with the festering of anger and hate that it feeds on?

ISIS needs to be fought. It needs to be defeated. But if we can only attack and root out the evil in others, while we turn a blind eye to and depend on the evil done on our behalf, how can we claim to be on the side of Good?

I don't claim to have any final answers. I don't know how we, as the communities that we are, go forward from here, defending ourselves and defending the good. But I know that it will take honesty and true courage, self-awareness and a degree of humility. Otherwise, our solutions won't be solutions at all. And evil - both ours and theirs - will prevail.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Persistence & Change

Today is the tenth consecutive day of the thaw, yet the snow and ice endure.

It’s a telling demonstration of the persistence of Winter’s hold that despite the drips and trickles and streams of water from all the melting, there is no difficulty in finding a chunk of ice or a heap of snow piled three feet high.

However much we think of things as fleeting, it seems to me that the power of persistence holds sway in the world. Winter will not be so gently nudged aside.

February was an epic month – the coldest ever recorded in Toronto. Not for a single second did the temperature rise above freezing, and we became accustomed to the feeling of twenty below. Pipes froze and burst, furnaces failed, and the thought of welcoming the open air became difficult to conjure. People died. And what a way to die.

I’m put in mind of persistence as one of the pillars of existence, alongside its contrary sibling, change. What havoc the two create. But also, what order and flow they bring about.

There is the persistence of the child in the adult.
The change of seasons, going round and round and round.
The persistence of anger,
and the slow dismantlement of feeling that makes us human again.
Memories form like rocks,
insisting on what has been that cannot be undone.
But they are molded by the dancing chisel of truth,
malleable under the unceasing rain of time.

And beauty.
What is most beautiful: hope or what it points to, love or that it grows,
life or that it flickers and extinguishes its bittersweet before we can know it?

Winter comes, it dies, it comes again. It has never really left.
Nor has Spring.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Seeing Blue

I actually couldn’t see it. Not at all.
As we walked through the snowy landscape, Ponczka called to my attention the vibrant blue of the shadows on the snow.
That’s not blue, I said.
Of course it is. It’s a rich, bright blue, she insisted.
I don’t see blue.
Well, what color do you see? Which forced me to look more closely, and to think about it.
And honestly, I can’t say what it is I thought I was seeing. But what I realized is that I was seeing something much more related to what I thought I should be seeing than to what was actually before me.
I had thoughts in my head about what shadows are, that they represent a blocking of the light, a darkness. I had it in my head that shadows are essentially an absence of light, that they are black. Or, at least a black-ness, superimposed upon whatever color the shadow fell on.
This is what my mind thought – vague as that is. So that is what my eyes saw. My mind had no room for perceiving blue, either in the snow or in the shadow. So my mind didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t see the blue.
Until – at Ponczka’s urging – I looked, looked some more, looked again.
Even then, I could only kind of see the blue. It took some practice. And then, two days later, I looked at a photo, and the bright, vibrant blue leapt out at me.
To think of all the sights and sounds and smells and touches and other phenomena that I’ve thought into the world – or out of it.
What else do I think I know, that I don’t know at all?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Remembering Melissa

2493 Richton, in Detroit, is the oldest place I know. It’s not the address that I was born into, but when I think of “home”, the place my roots lead me to, a place where I always had a place, it’s that house that I think of.

Richton was the home of my Aunt Bernice, my mother’s sister, and her family. It was also the hub of my extended family; the place my brother Rhett and I vacationed almost every summer after we moved to New York, and where so many other family members – some so distantly related that the connection was not always clear – lived for a time when they came north from West Virginia or the Carolinas.

Aside from Aunt Bernice, the person I most associate with this most cherished home of my heart, is her daughter, my first cousin, Melissa. Melissa was the eldest of the small bunch of us cousins growing up together. Her brother Jeff was the youngest. In between them were Rhett and I, and Linda and Terry, whose father Earl was our mother’s closest cousin. The six of us spent so much time together, mostly on Richton, with Melissa presiding over and guiding us. She was only three or four years older than Rhett, but her maturity and confidence made her almost adult in our eyes. Certainly, she was the intermediary between our childhood worlds and all that lay beyond.

I have three standout memories of Melissa. The first dates from our earliest childhood, when the six of us, and a couple of the Spielman kids from across the street, would gather at Richton on a Friday night, left by our parents into Aunt Bernice’s care. Melissa was, among other things, a great entertainer and story-teller, and the bunch of us never tired of Melissa taking us into the basement, turning out the lights, and thrilling us with a scary story.

Our favorite, for which we clamored every time, was about Johnny & the Liver. Looking back, it’s such a gruesome and ridiculous story, but we never tired of Melissa’s re-telling. It’s about a kid who is given a dollar by his mother, to go to the butcher’s for a pound of liver. Johnny decides to keep the dollar, to buy candy or something. So, spying a bum lying unconscious in an alley, Johnny takes his utility knife and cuts out the man’s liver, wraps it in paper, and takes it home. After dinner (and no, I can’t remember how Melissa covered that part!), Johnny goes to bed, where he’s soon unsettled by disturbing sounds outside his window. After awhile, he hears a hoarse whisper, rising to him from the back alley that runs beneath the sill. It says, “Johnny! I want my LIVER back, I’m on the FIRST step!” This was the point at which we kids started to squeal and quake and poke each other in the dark. Melissa would build up the tension, with details of Johnny’s efforts, first to ignore the voice, then to somehow barricade himself against the inevitable retribution stalking him in the night. I won’t even try to duplicate the level of gleeful terror that Melissa would have inspired by the time the vengeful spectre reaches the tenth step, and Johnny meets his fate. Ah, what fun that was!

My second memory finds me at about fifteen, during one of our summer stays in Detroit. Melissa had blossomed musically, and was playing piano and singing in the church choir. I’d started dabbling in music myself, and was sitting one day, trying to pick out the piano part of “O Happy Day”, the gospel tune by the Edwin Hawkins singers that had become a hit on top-forty radio. Melissa heard me going at it, and sat down and taught me a wonderful version of the tune, with the left hand banging out the strong, rhythmic baseline that made the piece so dynamic. Melissa was so patient with me, but also, as excited as I was, as I gradually caught the energy and flow of the song.

My third memory is from just before my 20th birthday, when I’d dropped out of college to bounce around the country for a few months. Over the years, 2493 Richton had seemed to diminish, somehow. We cousins were branching out, trying to discover our own paths, the elders were older and less active, and I remember a feeling that perhaps something that had been alive and beautiful was now dead and done. But I arrived to find Melissa, not long married, and with her baby daughter, Ramana, just on the verge of learning to walk. I instantly fell in love with Ramana, and seeing my cousin, now married and a mother, was transformative. She’d always been like an advance scout for my generation, into the world of maturity and adulthood. And here she was – ARRIVED! Melissa was still the same young spirit, loving and fun and creative as she’d ever been, and at the same time, she was a married woman, with a child, and an entirely different future to grow into.

But the key thing about that visit was seeing how Ramana’s very presence created that future, not just for Melissa, but for the entire family. We were all in love with Ramana. And I remember my mother, also visiting, and aunt Audrey, the matriarch of the family, great aunt to both Melissa and I, who was living at Richton at the time, and so many others in the family, sitting around for hours at a time it seemed, watching Ramana’s every move, commenting on her every gurble, delighting at every expression and exploration, seeing the future emerging in front of our eyes, bringing new life, new hope, new possibility.

So yes, my strongest memories of Melissa aren’t just about her at all. They are embodied in her children, in those of us she taught, and those of us she guided and cared for. Her life was never just her life, it’s always been the life of an entire family, of a community, of a place that was home for so many. And so, of course I will miss Melissa. But she’ll never be gone, really. She, like love and life, is everywhere. She’s as deep as roots grow, as long as memory, as eternal as hope and possibility, and as satisfying to the spirit as being scared and thrilled in the dark, because, after all, it’s your mother/sister/cousin telling the scary story,  and you know that the light is just up the stairs a way.

Thank you, Melissa.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Where Do We Go From Here?

It's the day that we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
And in the face of Boko Haram, ISIS and the Paris killings, and the reactionary attacks on Moslems in so many places, I long for a resurgence of Dr. King's spirit.

King, Gandhi, Mandela.... These are the leaders we need today. Those who show us that an eye for an eye, hate for hate, violence for violence, dehumanization for dehumanization is not the sustainable formula for peace or justice, nor for freeing a people from oppression.

The answer also doesn't lie in fear. Particularly not in the kind of fear that, in the name of defending a free and democratic society, keeps those we fear detained, tortured and stripped of all those rights fundamental to that same democratic society. That's the ugly hypocrisy of Guantanamo. Our fear of hate, revulsion for the haters, leads us to actions that only generate more.

The problem with commemorations such as today's are that they make it so easy for us to pay lip service to principles we will not stand for.

Not just pointing a finger. Also experiencing the shame. Of what we allow to be done in our name.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Social Work, Sports & Teamwork

I love Social Work. Its essence is about connecting, about reaching out, about recognizing human need as something other than failure, lack of character or being "bad". Social Work, at its best, acknowledges that all human beings are fallible, but also that all human beings have aspirations to be better, whatever form those aspirations may take, however difficult they may be to discern at all. Social Work is about taking judgement out of the equation of whether or not one deserves to have a good life.

But, one of the glaring misses that often manifests in the practice of Social Work is that the principles applied in the service of clients are too often withheld in the management of those delivering service. This is in part because social workers often identify so much as givers, that they struggle with the notion of receiving support, as though life were a zero-sum game, in which receiving would somehow invalidate, or somehow dilute, the quality of their giving. This, of course, is nonsense.

But unfortunately, the business stylings with which Social Work management increasingly constrains itself - in the name of professionalism, efficiency and accountability - can cause it to overlook the sector-specific needs of its work force, succumbing to an accounting method of evaluating the work.

What generated this post are thoughts about Teamwork; about how Teamwork can improve the delivery of social services, but how so many agencies and institutions fail to embrace two of the most useful methodologies inherent in Teamwork, those being: the division of labor and the matching of abilities and interests to the tasks at hand.

This is where Sport comes into the discussion. Professional sports management is substantially about maximizing the effectiveness of talent. Coaching focuses on the development and matching of skills. Social Work management, on the other hand, is often about normalizing and standardizing a work force, partly so as to have a uniform and predictable delivery of services. There are lots of reasons for this, not least of which are the influence of unions and the need to avoid liability. So, while Sports Managers and coaches seek out and build on the unique qualities of athletes, and match them for optimal effectiveness, Social Services managers are more likely to seek to eliminate differences in work styles, and to create predictable norms for its service delivery. Coaches tend to view unique qualities as gifts, to be developed. In competition, these are advantages that catch opponents off guard and disrupt their plans. In social work, unique qualities can undermine consistency in service delivery, and can create expectations that cannot be met.

These differences between the two management approaches are appropriate to the fields to which they apply. And yet ... possibilities are sometimes missed.

In my social work career, I've experienced plenty of very appropriate specialization on the level of job description and duties. For example, a group home I worked in employed several frontline workers to manage the day-to-day activities of residents. In addition, there were managers, an intake coordinator, a case-manager, a life-skills teacher, and a counselor. This level of specialization and division of labor is common in the field. But there was another level of specialization that took place among the frontline workers. One of the staff was into physical fitness, so developed outings and activities that built on this passion. Another person was into cooking and nutrition. A third loved music and movies and organized entertainments. Yet another was passionate about education, books and learning, and was able to form special bonds with residents open to his influence. But the only way this could happen was with the encouragement and support of managers who were willing to allow flexibility in the sharing of duties. The sharing of duties related to the different temperments and interests of the staff spilled over into such things as handling the conflicts that erupted on a daily basis, writing log entries, dealing with parents and teachers and case-workers who phoned and visited the facility, assigning and monitoring chores. Certainly, these were areas of shared responsibility, but in most instances, individuals with particular abilities took disproportionate rolls in areas of their strength and/or interest.

In larger institutions, this type of personalized job functioning is much harder to find. Job descriptions are more standardized, and often, everyone is expected to do everything. What is often lost is the benefit of freeing up the incredible diversity of human personality, skill and passion.

The reason Sports comes to mind is that its focus on Team Achievement generates a perspective from which the development of individual talent is freed from standardization. There's not quite so much need for the human parts to be interchangeable. Role Players who specialize are appreciated for their expertise, and are not relied on for what they cannot do, don't do well, or don't do at all. (Of course, they are compensated accordingly, which, if they lack the required skills, could mean no compensation at all).

I find myself wishing that there was more, explicit currying of talent in social work, or, at least, more acknowledgment that workers are unique and that their development and contribution needn't fit a mold. I'm overstating my case, but to make a point that I think is useful. Human Services work depends on the face-to-face expression of humanity. It depends on staff who bring their full, multi-dimensional selves to work every day, sharing their passion and the richness of their experience. It is the human quality, moreso than the professional, that gives Social Work its heart and vigor. The technical skill and knowledge base that derive from professionalism are able to flourish because of the human connection that the best workers are able to make. And sometimes - only sometimes, mind you - the idiosyncratic is discouraged or squeezed out, where it might be of tremendous value.

Think of your favorite teacher. Chances are - if I'm right - that special teacher in your life was quite different than others, had some unique gifts, was maybe even weird. Most of my favorite teachers were. And I understand that this is precisely where the great risk comes in. One of my best teachers ever was probably a bit psychotic. He sometimes went on rants about conspiracies being hatched against him, and he was a bit too hands on with some of the girls. He was fired, eventually, and should have been. At the same time, he had a talent for teaching that I'll never forget. I'm not suggesting for a moment that such an individual belonged in teaching, or in social work. But I do believe that efforts to prevent such dangers can go too far. And when uniqueness and idiosyncrasies, and personal passions, and imbalances in skill, and expressions of affection are weeded out, it has gone too far.

As the French say, "Vive la Difference!"


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Je Suis Charlie

I don't know that I'd have been much of a fan of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, and of their brand of humor. I prefer respectful humor to its mocking style.

But I'm so angry about the killings in Paris today. I want to rant against the arrogant ignorance that is so self-righteous about its point of view that it would kill innocents in defense of its pitiful sense of honor.

What an ugly sense of God one must have, to slaughter while proclaiming that God is Good. This has nothing to do with Islam. Whether one calls oneself Christian, Moslem, Jew, or by any other designation, if the highest that a person's God calls them to is random and symbolic slaughter, that person's God is no more than a reflection of that person's own inadequacy and fear.

I don't order my life around religious concepts. But I value the notion of God, as representing a basic and essential goodness in creation, as representing our longing and desire to be bigger and better and more loving than we are. I find it a perversion of the very concept of God, to wrap it around our baggage of longing, need, loss and our fear, and use it as a weapon.

I hope that the essence of Love - which, so far as I can determine, is the motivating power is all true faith - will seep in and calm my own vengeful, angry heart ... and the hearts of all of us misguided fools, who do so much that is hateful in God's name.