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,
Neither age nor time has changed my opinion of Mrs. Gladwill.
I will go to my grave believing that my first grade teacher actually took pleasure in torturing little kids.
If you think I’m exaggerating, consider this: at age six, when I watched the movie The Wizard of Oz for the first time, I was convinced that the Wicked Witch of the West had taken lessons from Mrs. Gladwill.
Horrible memories from first grade still haunt me:
- Being put in the corner because it was easier to move me rather than the kids around me who were cheating;
- Wetting my pants because Mrs. Gladwill believed that if you didn’t use lunch or recess to relieve yourself, you didn’t plan appropriately;
- Going to school with the mumps because I didn’t want my name to be written on the upper right hand corner of the chalkboard for being absent;
- Getting caught going to school with the mumps, being blamed for infecting most of the kids in my class, and having my name written on the upper right hand corner of the chalkboard anyway.
The list goes on and on. But nothing compares to the horror I felt for making my first mistake on a school assignment.
Up to that point, I though school was too easy. So, when Mrs. Gladwill gave her class a worksheet with rows of pictures and told us to circle everything that began with the letters ch, I scoffed at such a simple task. While my peers studied the worksheet and labored over the choices, I took more time selecting which crayon to use than I did actually circling the pictures: a chairs, cherries; checkers, a chicken, cheese and a few other items. I raised my hand, turned in my paper and took pleasure in being the first in my class to complete the assignment.
What I never anticipated was getting the paper back the next day with a big red circle around the picture of a church and an even bigger -1 at the top of the page.
I was so astonished, I forgot to be afraid of Mrs. Gladwill. I actually reached out and tugged on her sleeve.
“You made a mistake,” I blurted out in my moment of disbelief,
I immediately regretted my words.
Mrs. Gladwill turned around with a look that said “I never make mistakes.” Her lack of words, however, gave me the opportunity I needed.
“You circled the turch,” I said. “Turch doesn’t begin with ch, It begins with T.”
For the first time in my life, an adult looked at me as though I was stupid.
“CHurch,” Mrs. Gladwill said emphasizing the ch sound, “begins with ch.”
And that was the end of our discussion. But it wasn’t the end of my disbelief.
I took the offending paper home to show my mother, who, to my amazement, sided with Mrs. Gladwill.
I was stunned. We went to turch almost every Sunday. When I talked about turch, it definitely started with a T. And that’s how others people said it too. I couldn’t have been saying and hearing it wrong.
And yet, according to my mother and to Mrs Gladwill, I had been.
The day my mother convinced me that turch wasn’t a word was quite possibly the most humbling day of my life. My world was turned upside down because I realized that the way I perceived it wasn’t always accurate. That was the most important lesson I learned in first grade.
It’s also one of which I am regularly reminded.
Just the other day, I discovered that yet another person I knew had died of a drug overdose, and, once again, people took to social media to disparage her. There were comments about how she used the money she got from being on welfare to buy drugs. There were comments about her deserving to die if she did drugs. There were even comments that the world was better off with one less drug user.
And for every one of those comments, someone who knew would point out that she wasn’t on welfare – she had a job. They would point out that she was a kind soul who went out of her way to help others. They would say that she had a family who loved her. That seemed to fall on deaf ears.
The people who were making the negative, hateful comments were doing exactly what I did as a first grader – only instead of insisting that the word church starts with a T, they were insisting that there is only one type of person who dies of a drug overdose. Based on their judgemental comments, the only thing that will change their mind is when someone they know and care about dies of an overdose.
I wouldn’t wish that on anyone – just as I wouldn’t wish any child has a horrible teacher like Mrs. Gladwill. But there is something to be said for negative experiences. They teach us valuable lessons; they help us develop new skills; they give us a new perspective; and, hopefully, every once in a while, they teach us humility.
Mrs. Gladwill died ten years ago at the age of 94. When my mother sent me her obituary, all those negative feelings from first grade came rushing back. But something else came back as well: a memory of my mother telling me that the smartest people make a lot of mistakes in life. The difference between them and others is that they always learn from them.
Thanks Mom. And (I say this with a great deal of hesitancy) thanks also, Mrs. Gladwill.
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.
I’ve never been one of those parents who wants to keep their kid home from school whenever possible. I operate on the theory that school is preparing young people for the world of employment, which doesn’t stop every time there is bad weather.
So yesterday, as high school students were already on school buses and a few were even at school when they got the text that our school system had changed its status from two-hour early dismissal to closed for the day, I rolled my eyes.
I had, after all, been closely monitoring the weather situation. I had heard all of the dire predictions that we would get a big snowfall on the first official day of spring. But only 14 hours earlier, I had been out on my bike enjoying spring-like weather. Not only that, but I’d had my eye on the National Weather Service forecast believing that, unlike for-profit weather companies, it would give me accurate information without all the hype.
And, the last time I checked, it was calling for a mix of sleet, snow and rain until 2:00 in the afternoon when the temperatures were supposed to drop below freezing. The sun hadn’t even risen when I took the dog for a walk while our cat trotted behind. That cat hates snow, ice and cold temperatures, so I trusted her more than any weather forecaster.
I shouldn’t have.
As I got ready for work, I put on clothes intended for looking good rather than for battling the elements.
I shouldn’t have.
I left for work after texting a couple of co-workers that the roads were fine and they didn’t have any worries.
I shouldn’t have.
By the time I drove the eight minutes from my house to my office, the temperature had already dropped two degrees. And I had only been in my office for a short time when big, heavy snowflakes began to fall.
By the time I was on a 9:00 conference call, I was watching a truck slip and side in front of the office.
And by the time I got off my conference call, the National Weather Service forecast had changed.
Needless to say, I closed the office, went home, shoveled the driveway and sent a text complaining about the weather to my friend.
But here’s the truth. There’s always something enjoyable about unusual weather. Maybe it’s how it breaks up the predictability of our lives. Maybe it’s because it brings us closer to neighbors, friends, co-workers and even the paper delivery guy as we collectively fight the elements. Or maybe it’s because these moments create memories that last a lifetime.
Yesterday afternoon, I sent a message to a group of college friends telling them about the local weather and reminding them of another freak snow storm.
It was April 1987 at Ohio University, and we were all looking forward to the warm days on South Green where we lived. When the temperatures rose, barely dressed students would sunbathe on towels while groups of guys played hacky sack nearby.
I had taken all of my winter clothes to my parents during spring break, so I didn’t have a coat, or boots or even any warm sweaters.
Which means, I wasn’t prepared to walk around campus in 17 inches of snow in tennis shoes: April 1987 Snowstorm
But I was 20 years old, so I did. To keep warm, I borrowed highly stylish 1980’s big, bright sweaters from my roommate Amy, who was from Rochester, New York. She knew spring didn’t necessarily mean it was time to pack away the sweaters.
She also knew where the best parties were. And so a group of us tramped through knee-deep snow to go to a party where, for some reason, we took photos.
Today, those photos hold so many memories. They don’t just represent a snapshot in time during a freak snowstorm. They represent a part of me that used to be… that part that only still exists only because I can share it with the people who were there with me.
Mother Nature may be temperamental, but Father Time is as predictable as he is relentless. His march forward stops for no one. He leaves his footprints on our relationships and our circumstances while etching wrinkles on our faces. But in each of those footprints, he also leaves a memory that can be taken out and enjoyed in any kind of weather.
Life is short. Snowstorms are even shorter. But friendships and memories? With the right people, they can last forever.
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.
On Friday afternoon, my 16-year old daughter and her friend giggled as they insisted I look at a picture from earlier that day.
In the photo, my daughter, who wears her glasses more than she wears her contacts, had placed several of her friends’ glasses over her own.
She was laughing with delight at the image of all those glasses perched on her nose. But just looking at the picture made my head hurt because trying to see the world through multiple lenses can be painful.
It’s so painful, in fact, that many of us avoid doing it.
But we should.
I was reminded of that this week when I begrudgingly attended a continuing education program that I needed to keep my social work license. The licensure requirements recently changed to include at least two hours about mental health issues for veterans, which was the topic of the workshop.
As soon as I entered the classroom, I realized that not all of us were there solely because we wanted to keep our licenses.
When I sat down, the older gentleman sitting directly across from me explained that, even though he wasn’t a social worker, he was interested in the topic.
He was a veteran he said as he gestured to a woman sitting near us who was wearing a hijab.
“I was taught to kill people like that,” he said to me. “Now I’m being told to accept them.”
I’m not even sure what hackles are, but I immediately felt mine go up. His words were in direct opposition to everything I’ve been raised to believe:
- America was founded on the principle of religious freedom.
- Christians aren’t supposed to judge people who are different than we are.
- Good people don’t want to harm others based on their beliefs.
With only a few words, this man who had spent most of his life in service to my country, made me question both his ethics and the agenda of our country’s military.
Only hours later, after listening to a presentation about military culture, hearing from family members of veterans, and getting bombarded with statistics, did I realize the man was crying.
A colleague was trying to comfort him as tears rolled down his cheeks. He was explaining how difficult adjusting to civilian life has been for him.
That’s when I realized the entire purpose of the continuing education requirement: I needed to understand that lens through which Veterans like him might view the world. He isn’t a bad man. He’s actually a good man who is living in a culture with conflicting message and ideals.
That was only one of the many reminders about different lenses that I’ve been getting recently.
For example, I had to change the lens through which I saw a childhood friend whom I’d envied for having everything I didn’t: a sense of style; easy popularity; a beautiful bedroom; horses and even a boat. She recently revealed that her stepfather had molested her for years in the house where I’d spent so many hours. In fact, she had envied me for my ability to express exactly what I was thinking and feeling while she kept everything bottled up.
I’ve had to change the lens through which I view some of the frustrating low-income clients who walk into our office after continually make poor choices. New medical findings show how poverty and childhood stress literally change brain structure.
I’ve had to change the lens through which I perceive people who allude to Fox News or share clips of Sarah Huckabee Sanders citing a recycled email. I have to remind myself to try to see the world through their tinted lens colored by dogma, lack of information, priorities, fear and their beliefs about their own circumstances.
Unlike my daughter, I’m not going to subject myself to a headache by putting on several pairs of real glasses that will make the world blurry. But I am going to try a little harder to look through the lenses that other people choose to share with me.
And in return, I hope they take time to look through mine as well.
I’ve been wanting to write about something that happened to me last Monday, but, up until just now. I haven’t been able to.
I could use the excuse that I’ve been busy (which I have been), but I’ve never before let that prevent me from writing about something so incredibly important.
The real problem hasn’t been lack of time. It’s been a lack of words.
I just don’t know how to write about hate.
You see, last Monday morning, a man came into my office and spewed racist venom at me.
I sat in shock as he got up in my face and yelled at me about using agency money to help Hispanic and black people. He even accused me of not caring about white people. Despite my efforts to be calm with a clearly irrational person, I admit glancing down at my arm and saying, “You do realize that I’m a white person, right?”
He couldn’t hear me. He was too absorbed in his own anger.
And, other than simply waiting out his verbal assault while my colleagues tried to decide what to do, I was powerless.
I can’t imagine how I would have felt if my skin color were darker.
I used to think I understood the problem of racism.
At age five, I cried on the first day of kindergarten when I discovered that I was the only white child in my class on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
But my parents and teacher (who was also white) rushed to my rescue. They had the only other white child in kindergarten transferred into my class so I felt more comfortable. I can only imagine how the man in my office would react if a Hispanic of black family had done something similar for their child.
By first grade, my parents moved our family off the reservation, and my class was full of kids who didn’t make me self-conscious about the color of my skin, eyes, hair or culture. As I moved from childhood into adolescence, I claimed to have experienced racism because I had been one of only two white kids in my kindergarten class.
I hadn’t. My limited experience didn’t even come close. Being a different color doesn’t equate to racism if you still have power. And my family had the power to get me out of a situation that made me feel uncomfortable.
But I didn’t feel as though I had any power last Monday.
I was in an office with no escape as the angry man stood between me and the door. I was in a situation in which reasoning and rational discussion couldn’t resolve the problem. And I was face to face with an individual who truly believed in a social hierarchy based solely on physical characteristics.
No matter how calm my voice was as I repeated the mantra “We care about all people here. We don’t care about their skin color or their religion,” I felt powerless.
When the man finally left, I rehashed the incident with my co-workers, expressed relief that he hadn’t been carrying a weapon, implemented a safety plan and complained that the current political environment is empowering bigots.
But I never doubted my convictions or the words I’d said to him.
He may have tried to intimidate me with his hate, but my words of love actually had more power – of that I have no doubt.
Hate might come knocking on my door. Sometimes, it might even walk in. But I will never, ever allow it to stay.
And knowing that makes me feel incredibly powerful. As it should.
“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.