Some places are just not intended for human comfort.
Take, for example, the concrete pad behind the building where I work. Two heat pumps and a garbage can occupy the space, which is surrounded by a waist-high concrete wall. There are no picnic tables or chairs to indicate this is a place to hang out. Nor is there any cover from the elements, which means both the sun and the rain beat down on its surface.
And yet, for the past few weeks, it’s been someone’s sleeping quarters and safe space. As I was leaving out the back door for a meeting last week, I noticed “Mark” (not his real name) sprawled out on the concrete pad in the hot sun reading children’s books.
The books were donated to my organization to distribute free to anyone who walks through our office doors.
I asked “Mark” how he was doing, and he grunted at me. I continued to my car without bothering him because, well, the grunt meant he probably didn’t want to be bothered.
“Mark” is a thirty something year-old man with schizophrenia who has been coming to our office for years.
Sometimes he is taking his medications. Sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes he has a place to live. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he wants to talk. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes, the system helps him. But most of the time, it fails him miserably.
He spends much of his time moping around town with his head hanging low and his pants hanging even lower. The police know him. He’s been arrested and even done jail time for trespassing. Many of our social service and mental health facilities know him. Even the people at the hospital know him.
One time, when he was desperate to get the demons out of his head and a safe place to stay, he actually called an ambulance to come get him at our office. That didn’t work out very well. He’s even been committed and spent a few days in a psychiatric facility. That didn’t work out very well either as he landed right back where he was before.
“Mark” isn’t capable of living on his own, but there are no facilities in our community for someone like him. From what I understand, he is an unwelcome guest at the rescue mission. He’s been robbed and taken advantage of by people who are more streetwise than he is. And much of the time, he stinks. Literally.
And yet my co-workers treat him with the same respect they treat our donors. They listen to him – even when he doesn’t make sense. They let him use the phone – even though we are fairly certain there is not anyone else on the call. And, on the occasions they’ve convinced him to take a shower in the upstairs bathroom and he’s thrown his wet, stinky clothes away, they’ve taken them out of the garbage and washed and folded them.
They don’t do any of this because it’s in their job descriptions. They do it because it’s the right thing to do. They do it because that’s what loving thy neighbor is about: loving all of our neighbors – not just the ones who smell good or with whom we agree.
I was thinking about this last week when “Mark’ grunted at me from the hot, concrete pad and I slipped into my air-conditioned car. When the radio came on, I heard the news about the Supreme Court decision in favor of the baker who refused to make a cake for a gay wedding. I’m not a lawyer or a Constitutional expert, but I disagreed with the ruling on a personal level. I also wondered how baking a cake could even became a political and legal issue in a nation where so many people define themselves as “Christians.”
But the again, I also wondered how, in a “Christian” nation, Mark’s safe place is a concrete pad behind a social service agency.
Christians are supposed to be followers of Christ – that’s where the name came from, right? And wasn’t Jesus all about breaking norms by socializing with the ostracized and caring for people who others disregarded? He never pretended it would be easy or pleasant. But he did teach us that no person is more important than any other person.
When I got back to the office after my meeting that day, Mark was gone. His belongings were out of sight, and there was no indication he’d ever been there or that he would soon be back
But I knew he would be.
Because the fact that the concrete pad behind my office is his safe place isn’t by chance. It’s because the people inside the building have created that safe place by accepting him just as he is.
You know, kind of like Jesus taught us,
According to a teenager in the know, “Tide Pods are a really old thing. Why are you writing about them?”
My reply? “It might be a really old thing for your generation, but adults won’t let it go.”
The response was a look. Not just a look. It was “the” look. You know the one parents often get for being completely ridiculous, or embarrassing or just plain out of touch with reality.
That look made my point more than any words I can write.
Adults aren’t always right. Many of us might have war chests of experiences, but that doesn’t mean our perceptions are always right. The number of years we’ve lived doesn’t count for everything and can sometimes get in the way of seeing and hearing the truth.
And the truth is that the majority of teenagers thought that the Tide Pod challenge (which, as a reminder, is to them ancient history) was really stupid. They never tried to eat Tide Pods, and they don’t want to be lumped in with the few highly publicized groups of teens that did.
And yet, some adults are doing just that.
Last weekend, as I and millions of other Americans, cheered for and cried with the youth who led the March for Our Lives against gun violence, some adults were posting rude memes on social media. I saw several versions of them, but the message was basically the same: We shouldn’t listen to our youth because they eat Tide Pods.
And then there were the ones comparing the teens to Hitler Youth.
Those actually made me nauseous.
This effort to discredit our youth was repeated throughout the week in various ways. And it was indecent.
No matter what your opinion about gun safety, ridiculing, belittling and dismissing our youth isn’t just horrible. It’s harmful.
Research shows that youth must feel valued by adults. It is essential to ensuring they grow into healthy and engaged adults. And yet, The Search Institute indicates that only 25% of all youth feel they are valued by their community.
I can’t imagine the vitriolic memes and rhetoric are helping.
So just stop.
None of us are going to agree with everything the next generation says and does. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have anything of value to contribute to the conversation.
After all, they are the ones who know that the Tide Pod Challenge is ancient history. And posting anything otherwise only makes the adults appear to be the ones out of touch with reality.
The man who walked into my office carrying a chainsaw a few weeks ago is now stuck in a jail cell.
In all likelihood, he’ll be behind bars for a very long time, and I don’t think anyone who knows him is surprised. My former client has been struggling to survive since he was released from prison only a couple of years ago. And while he’d most likely been involved in criminal behavior for which he wasn’t caught (the origins of that chainsaw he was selling to raise money to pay his electric bill are highly dubious), his luck ran out this week. He never really had much of a chance anyway. Growing up, he had too many strikes against him.
And if common sense isn’t enough to tell us that the more negative experiences a person has in childhood, the less likely they are to succeed as adults, science has now proven it. But this doesn’t mean we should give up. Research has also shown that positive relationships with caring adults can help mitigate the impact of those negative childhood experiences.
And for many children, those caring adults are teachers. Teachers aren’t just educating the next generation; they are building relationships that could very well save a child who would otherwise end up like my former client – in a jail cell heading back to prison.
If common sense and logic prevailed, our communities would be doing everything we could to support teachers. We’d recognize that our future depends on them.
And yet, in West Virginia, our teachers – some of the lowest paid in the nation – have been on strike for more than a week. And the issue isn’t just about salaries – it’s about access to affordable health care and basic respect for the profession.
Many lawmakers are their biggest advocates, but others are actually belittling them.
Take, for example, Republican State Senator Craig Blair, who unfortunately and embarrassingly is from my county. During a radio interview, he actually used the fact that teachers are personally ensuring that low-income children still have access to free lunches during the strike as a reason they shouldn’t get raises.
Not only did he fail to acknowledge how incredible these teachers are for giving more than they are required, he flat-out failed the children they are helping. These are children in poverty. These are children who already have several strikes against them. These are children who need caring adults in their lives to counter all of the negative consequences of poverty. These are children that are caught up in a political battle that could be easily resolved. And these are the children who will soon be adults that either contribute to or become a burden on our communities. It all depends on what we adults choose to do.
I couldn’t save my client who is back behind bars, but I refuse to do nothing for West Virginia’s children and the teachers they need as much as they need sunshine and water to grow.
I’m using this blog and my words to strike back at the lawmakers who aren’t supporting them. And I know a lot of voters who will be striking back at the ballot box in November.
I got a rash on my face for Christmas this year.
It was a gift, or, at least it was the byproduct of a gift that was given with the best of intentions.
And because of that, I almost didn’t write about it.
I didn’t write about a lot of things in 2017.
That’s partly because I had so much on my plate that I couldn’t find the energy at the end of a day or week to collect my thoughts in a coherent manner.
My lack of writing was partly because there was just too much going on to address anything in a timely manner. The man currently occupying the Oval Office said and did so many mind-numbing, jaw-dropping, embarrassing things, that something I wrote on Saturday morning would already be obsolete by that afternoon because of his latest tweet, or handshake, or speech or attempt to drink water with two hands.
And I didn’t write much this year because I live with my greatest critics. And sometimes not writing is easier than dealing with the aftermath of someone feeling misquoted or offended or embarrassed by my interpretation of events.
Which brings us right back to the rash on my face, which is the direct result of a thoughtful Christmas gift that my husband gave me. And, at risk hurting his feelings by sharing with the world that the itchy bumps on my face are his fault, I’m doing it anyway.
That’s because as 2017 ends, the rash symbolizes so much more than my husband’s misguided attempt to help me relax by giving me scented spray for pillows and linens (a spray to which I am apparently allergic).
It’s about having survived almost an entire year (starting on Friday January 20, to be exact) in which our country has been subjected to a rash leader whose impulsive tendencies are causing much bigger problems than just an irritating itch.
Unfortunately, I can’t change the leadership problem in this country as easily as I changed the sheets and pillowcases doused with the rash-causing spray. But that doesn’t mean I have to tolerate it nor should I be silenced.
A rash isn’t just irritating, it can be dangerous when untreated. The same goes for rash people. And there is no shame in trying to address the root of the problem or finding an antidote.
Here’s to making that a breakthrough discovery in 2018.
“You need to choose the sword you fall on.”
Those words rang in my ears as I walked back through my office doors.
They hadn’t been said in warning. They were simply the last bits of a conversation with a wise woman who was commenting on my tendency to either push back or push the envelope, challenge the status quo and speak out loudly about my beliefs.
And yet, the words seemed to take on a shape of their own and drift behind me as I braced myself for my next challenge.
Don’t get me wrong.
I’m a firm believer that challenges are great for character development. But they can also be senseless and tragic when created by one group of people against another group of people.
And more and more, that’s the type of challenge I face on a daily basis.
Earlier in the week, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officers conducted raids in my community and took numerous individuals into custody.
For some people, that just means they were following the law. For others, it demonstrates how a complex and outdated immigration system is hurting our fellow human beings. And for some hateful and spiteful individuals, it means that “foreigners” and “illegal aliens” are getting what they deserve.
But to people like me and my colleagues, it means families are being torn apart.
It means children are losing a parent.
It means people who have escaped desperate situations and horrific conditions are losing hope, struggling to navigate a complicated and bureaucratic system and living in fear that they will never see their loved ones again.
And it means that the challenges my colleagues and I face every day aren’t as simple as ensuring that families have housing, food and enough money to pay the utility bills.
The challenges aren’t as simple as advocating for immigrant rights or educating the community about the complicated immigration system in our country.
They aren’t even as simple as ensuring that teachers understand that a spirited debate about “illegal” immigration isn’t helpful when you forget that the child in the back of the room has a father who has just been deported.
The challenges we face aren’t simple because matters of the heart are never simple.
And the art of living with people who have different ideas, different skin colors, different religions, different beliefs and different histories is a matter of the heart.
Unfortunately, my heart has been breaking a little more each time I hear, read or witness another senseless attack on someone who is simply struggling to exist.
Which is the reason I’ve been sharpening that proverbial sword I was warned about.
My sword isn’t intended to hurt people, but, when it’s used correctly, it sometimes does.
That’s because swords were designed for fighting.
My sword is comprised of the words I write about the truth as I see it. My colleagues have their own swords built on experience, education and passion. And all of us are using our swords to fight against injustice and to defend hearts that can easily break in today’s heated attacks on minorities, the poor and the undocumented.
We may trip and fall on our swords by accident, but there is no doubt that we will ever regret the fight.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend called me a hypocrite because, for a few hours, I didn’t want to focus on someone else’s problems.
I am, after all, a social worker. Not only has my career been dedicated to ” being the change I seek in the world,” but my profession follows me into my personal life like a hungry dog seeking a treat.
Sometimes I believe there is a permanent thought bubble hovering over my head that says “Talk to me – I care.”
Just this week, a man stopped my daughter and me while we were out walking our dog. He wanted to tell me about a dog he used to have. The conversation quickly turned to his life as a young African-American man growing up in the projects of Baltimore in the 1970’s and about the racism he experienced.
Fifteen minutes later, my daughter and I said goodbye to him. As we walked away, Kendall, simply asked, “Complete stranger?”
I nodded in affirmation.
Here’s the thing: I care about people. I care about other people a lot. I hate injustice. I can’t stand putting profit over people. And I abhor when religion or national origin or the ability to speak English are used as excuses to discriminate.
But here’s the other thing: I’m human. I have my own issues, insecurities, and flaws. I can be self-centered and insensitive. I actually get tired of hearing about everything that is wrong with the world when I’m struggling with my own problems. And yes, at times I can be hypocritical.
But there is a big difference between having a bad moment or a bad day and living life as a hypocrite.
At least I think there is. I certainly hope I’m not fooling myself. Because, from what I can tell, the worst offending hypocrites completely fail to see any hypocrisy in their words or behavior.
Which is why I’m more than willing to share a few simple examples I’ve recently observed.
You might be a hypocrite if…
- You use drugs recreationally but publicly shame addicts.
- You claim to follow the teachings of Christ then post negative messages about Muslims on social media.
- You complain about how vulgar our society has become but voted for a presidential candidate who boasted about molesting women.
- You constantly complain about paying taxes yet received a college education thanks to the GI bill, are enjoying a substantial pension from a government job, and expect your highways and public roads to be pot-hole free.
- You spent years making negative statements and sharing outright lies about our country’s former president then display self-righteous indignation about any criticism of our current president.
- You are an elected official who says you are voting in the best interest of your constituents when you are actually voting based on party politics and raising millions of dollars for your re-election campaign from special interest groups and corporations.
- You complain about lazy people who depend on tax payer support then, when you lose your job, complain that the SNAP (food stamp) benefits you receive aren’t sufficient.
This is far from a comprehensive list, but to be honest, I doubt the people I am writing about will read these words anyway. And even if they do, they probably won’t recognize themselves.
But I had to write all of them anyway – including the ones about my own imperfections.
As the saying goes, “I would rather be known in life as an honest sinner than as a lying hypocrite.”
I had been chalking up my growing contempt for a certain group of people to the fact that I’ve turned 50.
I am absolutely convinced that scientific evidence will soon prove that 50 is the maximum number of years the average human can tolerate difficult people.
I’m not talking about people with personalities or self-serving behavior. They’ve always rubbed me the wrong way, and I learned to deal with them decades ago – even when that made my life more difficult.
I’ve never been particularly good at being deferential to people whose primary goal is to feel important, powerful, or special at the expense of others.
I’ve written about people who use religion as an excuse for intolerance and discrimination.
I’ve called out business owners who believe excessive personal profits are more important than ensuring their employees earn enough to pay their essential bills or can easily be fired when profits are down.
And I’ve never hesitated to point out how many people use the privilege of voting and the political system to pursue personal gain rather than the common good.
But I’ve come to realize that such individuals are simply doing what other people allow them to do.
And I can’t stand it any longer.
For 50 years, they almost had me convinced that there was something wrong with me – that, in my own way, I too was intolerant and, like they, should:
- Understand that the southern guy who displays the confederate flag just has a different perspective;
- Realize that employers aren’t in business to take care of people but to make as much money as they can;
- Expect the old white guy to be clueless about how his words and attitude are offensive.
- Know that some people must cling to the belief that their religion is THE religion because that’s what they’ve been taught.
And then I turned 50, and I realized that there is absolutely nothing wrong with my intolerance of such beliefs and behaviors. Calling out people who is exhibit them is important, but calling out the people who stay silent in such matters is the only way the world will change
I turned 50, and I won’t let people let me think I’m not tolerant about their desire not to “get involved.” Instead, I’m going to let them know that if they aren’t part of the solution, they are part of the problem.
I turned 50, and I decided that no one’s opinion about how I choose to address problematic people matters.
I turned 50… and then I just didn’t care.
Amid the multitude of facts, opinions and news stories whirling around Donald Trump’s latest bizarre, unprecedented and seemingly self-serving action (that would be the firing of FBI Director James Comey if you aren’t even sure to which of his latest actions I am referring), one piece of the story has lingered with me.
I just can’t shake the image of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hiding in the bushes to avoid a direct confrontation with reporters seeking more information.
I have no doubt my obsession is linked to a memory from my childhood and my need to uncover the truth.
My story begins when my parents purchased our house in a rural, Central Oregon town As part of the transaction, they had gotten a history from the seller, whose family had been the original owners. According to my mom, the seller’s father had “died in the bushes.”
I was six years old at the time, and the line of ornamental bushes that spanned the front of the house ran directly under my bedroom window. For months I was obsessed with the fact that a man had died in those bushes.
I would crawl under them trying to find any sign of either a dead body or, at least, some indication that a man had spent his last moments there. Even though I got nothing, I kept searching in hopes that some clue as to the man’s fate would emerge.
Then one day, my mom found me in the bushes and asked what I was doing.
“You said the man who used to live here died in the bushes,” I told her with all of the solemness that first-grade me could muster.
She had no idea what I was talking about. Only later did I discover that she had used the term “in the bushes” as a euphemism for alcoholism.
I’m now fifty years old, and I’ve never heard anyone else use that term in that way. But that doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that the term “in the bushes” has stuck with me for 44 years because it represents my passion for always pursuing the truth.
Which is why Sean Spicer ducking into the bushes to avoid facing reporters is not only completely ironic, it is more revealing than any lie Donald Trump could ever tell.
People in the public eye want to tell their side of the story. They want to share their opinions and the opinions of those they represent. They want to show evidence of what happened in the bushes and why it happened.
Unless, of course, the bushes are just a way of hiding the truth… be it the ugly truth of an addict who succumbed to a disease or that of an unqualified businessman who bedazzled voters with his wealth, his double speak, and his complete disregard for the truth.
But here’s the thing: when six-year-old me finally got the real facts from my mom, I stopped wasting my time under bushes and decided to devote more time to climbing trees.
Because when you climb trees, your perspective is so much better than the one you get crawling under (or hiding in) a bush.
And not only can you see what is actually occurring around you, you are also putting yourself out in the open for everyone else to see.
And that is what truth is all about.
Like many Americans, I had a visceral reaction to photos of Sarah Palin’s visit to the White House last week. (See Washington Post article.)
But my reaction wasn’t about how she, Ted Nugent and Kid Rock were disrespectful as they posed in front of the picture of Hillary Clinton as first lady. It wasn’t even about how hateful Ted Nugent is or how incredibly clueless Sarah Palin is (as evidenced by the flippant comment she made that she invited the musicians to dinner because Jesus wasn’t available.)
Instead my reaction was rooted in something I’ve carried with me since childhood. As an eight-year old girl, I wondered why boys who could barely read but acted tough were the ones all the other kids flocked to on the playground. In middle school, I suffered the wrath of mean girls, girls who were considered “popular,” because I was smart and actually cared about my education. And in high school, I rolled my eyes as class elections were always based less on which candidate was more capable and more on which candidate was the most fun.
Then I went to college and entered a reality in which the social pecking order had little place in a world where people wanted to broaden their horizons. Being smart counted. Being educated counted. Discussing ideas instead of other people counted. Understanding abstract concepts, diverse opinions and multiple possibilities counted. Most importantly, living a non-superficial life counted.
Or so I thought.
Between college and graduate school, I witnessed women purposely marry men for money and status. But I still appreciated my own independence and ideals, and I presumed other people respected me for it. After I had children, I endured social circles that centered around who could afford the best pre-schools and expensive houses in elite neighborhoods. But, I surrounded myself with people who realized that happiness doesn’t come from what we have but from what we create. And even as I watched my peers climb a corporate ladder, I knew that the work I did in social service agencies mattered. If nothing else, it had helped me value programs, services and policies that didn’t necessarily benefit me but did help individuals who hadn’t had the same opportunities.
I was well-educated, intelligent, and hard-working, and I assumed those qualities were widely respected.
Then John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election, and I felt as though I was right back on that elementary school playground. When a colleague asked, “Don’t you want our leaders and politicians to be smarter than you?” I realized many Americans didn’t. They just wanted to hear someone spout rhetoric that made them feel good about their own beliefs.
But, when McCain lost and the Obama administration spent eight years implementing policies and programs often intended to help our most vulnerable citizens and resources, I forgot about my disappointment.
Then Trump happened.
Shortly after he was elected, the pundits began to talk about how so many Americans were fed up with the “liberal elite,” and I realized that some people considered me to be one of those individuals.
I may be liberal and many of political beliefs may be rooted in my education, but I’m certainly not elite or an elitist. I’ve spent most of my adult life fighting for people to have the same opportunities I did. And yet, so many people who didn’t have those opportunities, especially those who fought and succeeded in building a good life, are voting to ensure that few others are given the opportunities. They even complain that they “gasp” have to pay taxes that benefit other people. The attitude almost seems to be one of “as long as I get what I want or need, I have no obligation to help others. They need to help themselves.”
Which brings me back to Thursday and Sarah Palin’s now well-publicized visit to the White House. As the photos started making the rounds on social media, so did the nasty comments. I saw several that made reference to “white trash,” a pejorative term usually used to describe white southerners of low social class. And even though I didn’t think these comments were necessarily appropriate, I totally understood where they were coming from.
They were coming from all of us who were picked last for teams during elementary school gym class because the boys who didn’t care about books were the captains. They were coming from those of us who actually studied for the test and then allowed the popular kid who sat behind us to cheat from our paper because we knew the consequences if we didn’t. They were coming from those of us who knew we would never get a job because of how we looked. They were coming from those of us who don’t hate people because of their religion, the color of their skin or their gender, who don’t believe more guns make us stronger and who don’t think that belittling others should make us popular.
They were coming from those of us who are disgusted that our country is now being controlled by the school yard bullies, the mean girls, and the people who think material possessions are a measure of personal value. They were coming from those of us who believe accomplishments and respect, not self-indulgent behavior and mean-spirited rhetoric, should be the ticket to a White House dinner.
So even though using the words “white trash” is not necessarily kind or even appropriate, it is accurate in describing the rude, white people who had dinner with President Trump on Thursday.
In fact, those two words are certainly more fair than almost everything else happening in the White House these days.