Thursday, June 29, 2017

Slow Burn

I’ve been contemplating the nature of Burn Out, because I’ve been suffering from a hard case and have not been able to cure myself but for brief days at a time. But the nature of these respites is shedding some light on the nature of the condition, and seems to offer a potential way out.

How to describe burn out? Extreme disinterest? A loss of capacity to apply oneself to a job? A State of being over-exposed to / satiated with an unappealing, even repulsive, set of conditions? Or maybe, coming from another direction, an absence of energy and vitality, resulting from having been drained or overworked? I’ve heard burnout described all of these ways, and a few others. But there isn’t often much talk about what the condition is. When someone declares that they are burnt out, it’s usually accepted, without any close diagnosis. It’s similar to when someone comes into the office and says that they caught a bug or a cold, and others immediately exclaim, “Oh, THAT! I had it too”, as though there’s no doubt that they suffer from a malady that is closely related, if not the same.
Of course, the other thing that burn out shares with the ‘bug’ is that half the people who pronounce their sympathy, and their allegiance to the cause of worker self-protection, don’t really believe that you have anything at all. Which doesn’t necessarily diminish the sincerity of their sympathy, since they probably don’t believe that they have anything either.
A key part of both the seasonal something and the case of burn out is just feeling bad, or not feeling right, along with a sense of helplessness, rooted in the inability to feel better.
I’m not a disciplined person. I’ve always found my motivation to go to work in either a desperate need of a paycheck, or a degree of passion about the work. It’s the main reason I’ve rarely stayed in a job more than three years. I’m not the sort of person able to go to the same place, at the same time, and do essentially the same thing, month after month, year after year. As much as I try to recognize the benefits of the sameness – the relative facility of doing something I’ve done so many times before that I hardly have to make an effort – that’s actually the source of the trouble.
Because it’s inattention, it’s not having to look very closely or carefully at something, that I’m beginning to belief is the source of burnout.

I’ve noted, you see, that the times I begin to come out of burnout are usually times of high focus, of close attention. It’s times I’ve taken something on, or had something thrust upon me, when I’ve had to force my attention to the details of a matter, and then to deal with them one by one, that I’ve found myself getting better.
Is laziness a factor? Maybe so. When I become used to a situation, I give it less of my attention. I begin to take shortcuts, assuming some of the details, rather than identifying them one by one. I let myself go with the general, rather than seek out the specific. It’s quicker, easier. It requires less time, effort and attention. And before long, that familiarity becomes a kind of weariness, then boredom. And gradually, what was an interesting and demanding task has become painfully dull.
But what came first? Did becoming used to a situation precede taking the cognitive short cuts, or was it the shortcuts that began to generate to sense of sameness, that led to the adaption of a formula, a pattern, that slowly squeezed out difference and uniqueness and whatever novelty might be in the matter?
My meditation practice touches on this. The practice involves giving close attention to minute details of sensation. And one of the things I’ve learned from the practice is that attention enlivens. I was never aware of the energy constantly coursing through my body, until I took up meditation and learned to be sensitive to it. And I’ve developed a curious relationship to physical pain. Instead of turning my attention away from it, I now focus on it. Because attention lessens pain, sometimes dissolving it entirely away. Because, when I examine it closely with my attention, I have to recognize what a gross, generalization the notion of pain is. In fact, what passes as pain is usually an accumulation of lots of sharp, tiny sensations. And sometimes they are unpleasant, but often they are not. And if I’m willing to be with them, well, often they turn out to be not nearly so overwhelming or uncomfortable as I feared they would be.
So now, I’m turning my attention to the burnout. Instead of staying with that label, I’m trying to do that diagnosis that I referred to earlier as hardly ever happening. What is it exactly that I’m experiencing? What precisely am I feeling, and why? And I’m very curious to learn where this exploration takes me.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A New Political Party?

How have we come to this? How have we Americans created such a dysfunctional government, and come to this point where we can’t even agree that it’s dysfunctional? If you listen to CNN, then switch to Fox, you would think that two entirely different realities are being described.

I am a lifelong, left-leaning voter, who can’t remember ever voting for a republican. I was a supporter of Bernie Sanders and have never for a single moment given Donald Trump any credit or respect. Yet, I know that a lot of Republicans – even some of those who haven’t given up on Trump – are reasonable, caring citizens who want the best for our country. Some of them have probably never voted for a Democrat in their lives, and yet, we could probably agree on a number of things, like, for example, that everyone should have access to decent health care, and the ability to send their children to a school in which they have confidence. And yet, the politics of our time has turned health care and school choice into wildly divisive issues on which it seems nearly impossible to arrive at consensus.

Why is this? And why – despite how inflamed and partisan and sensationalized politics has become – do most eligible Americans not even bother to vote anymore? And why – out of desperation – have we turned our government over to a man with no political experience, whose substantial short-comings even his supporters acknowledge.

Increasingly, I’m beginning to wonder if the United States might manage what the French have somehow managed – to create and put into power an entirely new party.
Today, I was exposed to three individuals, who identify as either Republican, or conservative or both, whom I would gladly support as active partners in reshaping our country and government. Not because I’d agree with them on specific political measures that are currently on the political agenda. But because they each expressed powerful and reasonable ideas about our current predicament and what will be necessary to move us in a better direction.

I heard a bit on NPR this morning about Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, who has written a book about “The Vanishing American Adult”. What I heard from him that I liked are his thoughts about how our culture undervalues work and struggle, and how these things serve to build character and develop self-reliance. I liked hearing this because, as a lifelong social service worker, I have seen how our programs and institutions sometimes provide support and assistance to the needy to a point beyond where it actually helps them. It’s true that policies sometimes encourage dependence and discourage individuals from developing a healthy sense of responsibility for their own outcomes. The trouble is, in the language of our politics today, one is either for social services or against them. It is hard to find a middle ground that one can hold. Because our politics is so much about spin and over-hyping our own partisan position while totally discrediting the views of the opposition.

The second conservative voice I heard, was that of Peter Wehner, of the Ethics and Public Policy center, also on NPR. He argued that in the public/political forum, we’ve lost our respect for objective truth. We manipulate, we countenance lies and distortions, and we refuse to hold to a standard of truth for those we are allied with, nor to respect the truths of our opponents.

The third rightist voice I encountered today was that of Ohio Governor John Kasich, in a live debate with Sen. Bernie Sanders on CNN. Another voice of reason, Kasich argued that we must be willing to listen to, respect and consider the views, values and concerns of our opponents. He spoke of the pounding he’s received from fellow Republicans for failing to stand behind Donald Trump, but said, quoting John Kennedy, that “…sometimes, your party asks too much.” I love what Bernie said tonight, of course, but he spoke more directly to the hot-button issues that are so inflammatory these days: the total economic dominance of the 1%, the incompetence of Trump, etc. Kasich spoke more broadly about the divide, and how to bridge it, how to get people communicating with their opposites, to overcome the extreme partisanship behind our current crisis of government.

There was some mention at the end of the CNN “debate” of Kasich and Sanders sharing a ticket in 2020, and of the failure of the current two parties to meet the needs of the citizenry. I love that idea. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a Congress where debates took place with an eye toward finding the common ground for including the concerns of the opposition, rather than simply winning a vote? Wouldn’t it be fabulous if all the lying and accusing and spin that dominates Washington was replaced by dialogue aimed at cutting through rhetoric to get at the shared needs and values of the vast majority of us who simply want to live well and support others in doing the same?

How to bring such a state about? I think a big part of the answer must lie in directing less attention at the politicians and more at becoming responsible voters. We have to reject the politicians who seduce us into their zero sum games of good versus evil, us versus them, destroy or be destroyed. And we have to shut down the politicians who make prolonging a career more important than serving, not just their constituents, but the entire, diverse communities they are part of. We voters have to hold ourselves more accountable. We created this mess, and only we can fix it.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Lesson From The Homeless

Being homeless is horrible. It’s a state of being most of us could not fully imagine. It represents the absence of so many things that we take for granted, things we would need to lose in order to fully appreciate. I’ll cite a single example. We recognize that hunger can be a very pressing issue for this population, which it is. So why might a homeless person turn down a free meal? Because – as one of my clients told me when I offered to buy him lunch one day – there is a very limited availability of accessible and clean toilets for such as he, so he had to time his eating to ensure that he had a place to go when nature called. It’s a survival issue that had never occurred to me before – not simply access to clean toilets, but having to orient ones entire life around this access.

Homelessness is not pretty. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some positive aspects. What follows is no defense of homelessness, so please don’t read it as such. But personally, I haven’t yet experienced the situation that hasn’t offered something, if only a bit of wisdom about how or how not to live, of which I think this is a good example.

The homeless share. This is a generalization: there are certainly plenty of those that never share, as well as those that only take. But it holds quite often, particularly in comparison to the day-to-day habits of the general population, that the homeless share what they have with their fellows. This is especially true of the young homeless. They share meals, they share cigarettes, they share their drugs and their alcohol. They share their tents, their money, their bus tokens, their resources and contacts, their clothing and, on cold nights, maybe the warmth of their sleeping bags and bodies. Sometimes, they share the corners where they panhandle.  And very, very often, once they’ve found a place to live, they share that too.

Ironically, this home sharing presents a challenge to programs like the one I work for, Toronto’s Streets to Homes program. We employ a “housing first” philosophy, which basically means that instead of attempting to make our clients “housing ready” before setting them up in apartments, we aim to get them in a place, with a key and a lease, right away, then tackle whatever other challenges they may face. And wouldn’t you know it – it turns out that one of the traits that keeps many of our young clients “not ready for housing” is that they are quick to open their doors to others.

In our modern world, living isolated between four walls is the norm. We have smaller and smaller families, having evolved from the notion of multi-generational clans sharing living space, to the ideal of the nuclear family in its detached, self-contained house. Every step up the social and economic ladder means more space between us and our neighbors, and more private space even within the walls of the family home. Rather than sharing the village well with our neighbors, we aim for a status at which everyone in a household has an entire bathroom suite to him or herself. We aim for more walls rather than more companionship.

I suspect that most of us, as much as we long for the modern ideal of privacy and autonomy, sense that there is something not quite right about it. In our hearts – dare I say, our souls – we long to be more communal, to be more in the presence of others. But we’ve lost the taste and feel for that. It makes us uncomfortable to be too much around other people. With too much company and socializing, we become desperate for our own, private, sheltered space, so we can relax, take off our masks, be ourselves.


The homeless, by necessity more than by choice, unlearn this need for privacy pretty quickly. What a shock it must be to lose ones home and to go into a shelter for the first time, to find yourself sleeping on a thin mattress on a floor, with another body within a foot of you on every side! But I’ve learned that for those who’ve been homeless for awhile – especially those who avoid the shelters and make their encampments in parks and ravines and under bridges – it can be quite a shock to suddenly find oneself alone between four walls. They speak of how unnaturally quiet it is, how still and stale the air. And of how alone and isolated they sometimes feel. Sometimes our newly housed clients are unable to stay in their apartments at first. The enclosure is too much to bear. So they may retreat to a park, or find their “street family” in the parking garage and bed down with them.

Or, they’ll invite their street family to come indoors. Of course, they’ve been cautioned not to do this. By US. Yes, we the social workers caution our clients that they must give up the very beautiful and natural and human adaptation that has helped them to survive their weeks or years of homelessness: the capacity to share. They must give this up, or risk lose their housing. Maybe they are violating a condition of the lease. Or the comings and goings will create a disturbance. Their friends will being their dogs with them, or yell up to the window to be admitted at 2 am. The neighbors will complain. Ultimately, for the housing to survive, our clients have to become re-socialized. That street family wasn’t a real family, after all. Let those others get their own housing. Their own keys and leases. Their own private bathrooms.

And somehow, while something is surely gained…something else is surely lost. Yes, perhaps I’ve romanticized it a bit too much. Homelessness is not a pretty thing. But it does somehow, sometimes, in some ways, bring out some good, adaptive qualities. Sharing is one of them. I have no doubt that this sharing phenomenon arises in part because, paradoxically, it is somehow easier to share when there is very little. I once had a young client – a regular panhandler – who, whenever we were crossing the city together, always put some coins into the cups or upturned caps of the other panhandlers we passed. When I asked him why, he said, “Because I know what it feels like.” Maybe it’s the intimate familiarity with want, with need, with cold that fuels the generosity of the homeless. I’ve heard from several of my clients, when I’ve admonished them that they had to evict some of their “guests” or risk winding up back on the street, that they couldn’t turn away someone when it was cold or raining. They just couldn’t.

This is a dilemma that we work with: how to support these homeless without destroying the sense of sharing and community that has sustained them. I know that there are lessons in this.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Blessings From My Late Winter Vacation

Going and Coming
I love this thing of applauding when a plane lands. When did that start? Is it one of the more positive side effects of 9/11? I enjoy the celebration of ordinary things that we commonly take for granted – even when they are a matter of life or death.
It’s also nice travelling from a cold climate into the warmth, gradually stripping off clothing, putting away boots for sandals. Not quite so nice coming back, except that you do bring some of the warmth back with you.
Shared Dining
These cruise ships are so huge. Ours carried 2 thousand passengers, and almost a thousand crew. It’s like a combination hotel, mall, entertainment complex, floating on the water. It’s easy to imagine you will be an anonymous cypher in the crowd. But the fact is, once you meet two or three other people, your paths are always crossing. You see them everywhere, aboard ship and in the ports.
We met Cooper and Lady A at our first meal, up on the Lido deck. The next evening we met Shirae and Nigel and Levi. The next, it was Frank and Jackie and Paul. Then Gabriel and Katina. Between them and members of the crew that served and supported us – Desra and Vlad and Warren among them – we hardly went anywhere without encountering a smiling, familiar face.
There’s something very nice about spending a week with a bunch of people all looking to do the same thing: get away from the cares and worries of daily life, and enjoy. (At just about every shared meal, it was agreed early on that politics would not be discussed). Instead, we talked about our lives, our work, our families, plans and dreams.
Being Embraced By Creation
That’s how I feel when I’m floating in a natural body of water. I try and totally relax all my muscles, so that my body bends and ripples with the wavelets. It takes a degree of trust. And it takes the water being somewhat tranquil, which fortunately it was. To me, the experience is a demonstration of total oneness with the Earth, evidence that the planet is my natural habitat, that we evolved together. The only thing that could’ve made it any more natural is being naked.
Waffle House
When I’m in New England, I must have fried clams. In Germany, I’m damned sure gonna have a wiener schnitzel. And if I’m in the southeast of the US, I wanna go to a Waffle House!
It has to do with having something you just can’t get in other places, or can’t get quite the same. So what if Waffle House is just a chain of diners that specialize in a simple breakfast: eggs, grits, hash browns and waffles. I LOVE it! Missing that treat would’ve been a disappointment, and we only managed on the very last day, due to Storm Stella which kept us in Orlando for an extra day. Thank you, Stella!

Aside from the waffle itself, which I admit is just a waffle, there’s the old-timey, working-class hokiness of the place, that the staff always greets you, and has coded terms for shouting in the orders, and those ceramic coffee mugs. I also like having a view of the grill and the short-order cook at work – a marvel of coordination and flow.
We need a Waffle House in Toronto!
Sleeping to the Sound of the Sea
We had a cabin with a balcony for the cruise. We propped the door open and fell asleep each night watching and hearing the waves just a few meters below us.
Beautiful, Little Island Nations
In some ways, the Caribbean Islands are all alike. But they are also all different! Barbados isn’t Puerto Rico, which isn’t St. Kitts. I was on St. Kitts once, twenty-four years ago, before cruise ships started stopping there. And it seems to me that the island nation has taken to tourism fairly well. It’s still a comfortable and relaxed place. It’s also one of the tiniest countries in the world (together with it’s sister island Nevis, the two are about the size of Sacramento, or Queens, the largest of New York City’s boroughs). Small enough that when I asked two different women if they knew the family I was once related to by marriage, they both did! When I asked one of them how she felt about the changes the island has undergone since the rise in tourism, she lamented that, with the coming of fast food, St. Kitts now has fat people.

Holding on to it; Bringing it Home
I don’t know what it is, or how to define it. But I’ve gotten better and better at holding it. When I return from vacation, the world I return to is transformed. I have those fresh eyes, those renewed receptors. Old is new again. And it lasts a lot longer than it used to. Weeks later, I know I can find it, faded perhaps, but still potent enough to give a lift, a moment of clarity, a dose of energy, purpose, serenity, wholeness.
Time for just the Two of Us
I know she doesn’t really understand, or doesn’t really believe it. That she doesn’t have to do anything. For various reasons, this isn’t the easiest of times for Ponczka. We both needed the vacation, but maybe she needed it most. We needed to put aside our cares and concerns, to experience long, quiet moments.
We’ve always enjoyed being together. I guess that’s what starts it, what makes a relationship happen and last and grow. And we’ve come to the point now – almost fifteen years together – where just being together is enough, whatever we’re doing, whatever is going on.
Being with her in a special place is wonderful. But so is being with her anywhere else. She doesn’t have to make it special by doing anything. She doesn’t need to entertain; doesn’t have to be fun.
It’s nice becoming people who can walk and talk, or sit and be silent, who can be attentive to one another, or can be together yet almost in our separate worlds. Our separate worlds are no longer so separate; they infuse one another. Oddly enough, I’m most at peace in my solitude when I’m with her, when she is near.
What a nice vacation.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

How Many Trumps Will It Take To Change A Light Bulb?

It will take one Trump to proclaim himself the greatest light bulb changer of all time: “It’s going to be great, folks. There will be light like you’ve never had it before. Really fantastic light. Just wait and see. No one has ever changed a light bulb like I’m gonna change a light bulb! Trust me!”
It will take another Trump to denounce and insult all previous and rival light bulb changers: “They’re all phonies and liars and crooks. They’ve been bringing you fake light. They’re horrible people. But now I’m here, and you’ve never seen light bulb changing like I’m gonna show you!”
Inline image

A third Trump will be needed to berate anyone who would dare suggest that his previous experience (tying his shoelaces, using a fork, walking, dressing himself, choosing barbers, etc.) ill prepares him to change light bulbs: “I’m very, very talented. I’m going to do an amazing job. I know more about changing light bulbs than professional light bulb changers. Because, you know, I’m very smart. And I’m a winner!”
Another Trump will be called upon to deny multiple failures during his years of tying his own shoe laces: “It’s absolutely untrue that I once tied the laces from my right shoe to the laces of my left shoe, causing me to fall flat on my face as soon as I stood up. But if I did, it was probably for a good reason.”
Yet another Trump will be required to dodge scandals about behavior inappropriate to light bulb changers: “No, I have never, ever changed a battery. Not a cell phone battery, or the battery in the smoke detector, or even a flashlight battery. Anyone who says so is a liar. I’ve never tried to change a battery and I would never think about trying to change a battery. But if I did change a battery, I’d be the best battery changer ever!
Finally, at least one more Trump will be needed to ramp up fear about the horrific darkness that will descend if he and he alone doesn’t change the light bulb: “It would be a disaster! People would die! The world would come to an end if I, and only I – remember, I’ll the only one who’s qualified – didn’t change the light bulb. It would be soooo bad, you wouldn’t believe it! But that’s not gonna happen. Because I’ve been elected – in a landslide – to change the light bulb. And when I do, IT IS GOING TO BE LIGHT AGAIN!”
Oh, one more. There has to be a Trump to buy the lightbulb from another Trump, who will make the light bulb (in China), through Trump the middle man, at enormous profit to all: “But it’ll be the best light bulb that money can buy!”
I’ve lost track. But eventually we will come to the Trump who does the actual screwing. And America will see the light.
Because, of course this would all be merely a theoretical exercise, but for the fact that some sixty-two million Americans decided that one Donald J. Trump was just the person to bring America back into that light. (And despite the fact that sixty-five million were convinced that he was not)
Which brings this levity to where it takes a sorrowful turn. Because sixty-two million of our fellow citizens decided that running the country that leads the world was probably no more difficult and required hardly more wisdom, skill, maturity, humility, self-awareness, respect for facts, consideration for others – in short, INTEGRITY – than it takes to change a light bulb.
They were mistaken.
The irony is that, all along, the sky has been brightening. Slowly but steadily, America has been moving toward its promise. There’s been an effort to intentionally overlook how truly dark America was eight years ago. Absurd claims are made that America has descended from something that was better over the last eight years, that we’ve fallen from an imaginary 2008 in which we enjoyed the higher regard of the world, and greater prosperity and safety at home. But even the resurgence of race as an issue doesn’t reflect something new, but rather something old and festering that is now coming into view under a brighter light. But sadly, in Trump, America has reached for the light switch, and is pulling the shades against the sun.
Good luck with that light bulb, Mr. Trump. Be prepared for a period of darkness, America. May it be oh so brief.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Farewell, Mr. President


Dear President Obama
Today is the last day of your presidency, and I’ll be sad to see you go.
It’s been an amazing, challenging, troubled yet wonderful eight years. You entered office with America so embroiled in war and economic devastation, it almost felt like a set up for failure. You were so full of hope and promise, but how could you possibly measure up to the expectations, and to the need, particularly with such a large target on your back? So much of the world was rooting for you, yet so many Americans were hungry and howling for your failure. How could that be? And how would it play out?
Well, it’s been both rewarding and punishing. For the entire nation, the world – probably for you more than most. That you could even be elected in America, with so much in our legacy of hate yet to be overcome, was astonishing. That you survived that first term, withstood so many attacks and stresses, so many setbacks and disappointments, to win a second term on the upward lift of a second, more strained and wary swell of hope, that too was remarkable.
And now, we’ve come to perhaps the strangest place of all. As your custodianship of the most powerful office in the world comes to an end, you are made to turn the presidency over to a man who is in almost all ways your opposite. Your popularity is higher than at almost any time since your inauguration, and your successor comes into office with the lowest approval ratings of any president since this measure was taken. And yet, hordes of Americans clamor about making America great again, as though you have not been steadily steering her in that direction.


It’s a crazy time. Is America is better shape than when you took office? In so many ways, that is clearly the case. Certainly, there are more people working, more people with health care, and more who are financially secure than back then. But there are also more signs of the hate and the spiritual sickness that has been as much a part of America as our yearning toward democracy and equality. As much as your presidency represented hope and coming together – maybe because of it – there is more of the politics of hate and fear and division than I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. Not since the late sixties have the forces of love and hate been so at war that it seems possible that the nation could come apart. It’s frightening. It’s depressing.
I’ve been recalling and listening to some of your speeches over the last little while. It’s remarkable and eye-opening to see how consistent your message has been. You’ve always talked about hope. You’ve always talked about the work that ordinary citizens must do. You’ve always preached the need for us to seek out our ‘others’ and share with them, listen to them. Maybe that’s what all this madness and confusion is. Maybe it’s the noise of people meeting and confronting their ‘others’, who don’t have much experience of that. The noise of it is deafening and confusing. Maybe it’s that we all want to speak before we are prepared to listen. And maybe we’ll finally shout ourselves out and a calmer phase will come. Maybe these are the wild, incautious teenage years of America, and we only have to survive them to begin to discover the maturity that our better natures promise.  As you’ve always said, it won’t be determined by hoping or despairing. It will take a lot of us doing.
I’ve gotten off track here. Because I wanted to tell you what I appreciate. There’s lots I could say on that, but I’ll keep it at one thing. Nothing to do with what you’ve accomplished, or haven’t, despite trying. I want to thank you for your calm, dignified being, for your determination and your patience, your tears, your anger, but also for being so slow to anger. In many ways, you’ve been like this nation’s father, when it’s desperately needed one. And, probably like with all fathers, it may seem that your words and example have gone unheeded, but they have not. To this citizen and voter, your presidency has been, above all else, about character.
You’ve been a good man, Mr. President. You’ve shown yourself to be a human being, fallible, questioning, committed and loyal, giving, sacrificing and humble. You have served your country and the world well. You deserve a little break from all this. But it’s pretty clear you aren’t going away. Which is a blessing to all of us.
I’m from that generation in which every young black man who showed promise was told, “You could be the first Black President!” There were times I heard it when I halfway thought it could be true. But you know, I’m really, really glad it was you, President Obama. All the best to you as you step beyond tomorrow. I send you my thanks, my respect, my love!
Kirby Obsidian