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.
A few months ago, I realized that regardless of what the man occupying the Oval Office says or does, he will always have a group of hard-core supporters.
Some of them support him because they truly believe his rhetoric – that legitimate news sources and journalists are making up the facts and twisting reality.
Some of them admit that he’s not perfect but believe that as long as his party affiliation starts with an R, he is the best option.
Some of them don’t care what he says or does as long they will personally benefit from his agenda – regardless of how it impacts others.
And then there are those who wave the American flag and claim that being patriotic requires being deferential to the President. They try to shame those of us who can’t support Trump by telling us that we are hoping he fails as president. I 100% agree with this. They generally follow this by saying that by hoping he fails, we are hoping America fails. I 100% disagree with this.
I want Trump to fail because his agenda isn’t American and his personal behavior and words don’t reflect what America is all about.
I want Trump to fail because I believe that health care is a right and not something that should be based on your job, your bank account, or to whom you are married.
I want Trump to fail because I believe that the majority of immigrants bring opportunities and not problems to America.
I want Trump to fail because trickle-down economics has been a proven failure to the people who most need the opportunity to make a living wage.
I want Trump to fail because I believe we should focus on improving public education rather than expecting the best education to be provided by private institutions.
I want Trump to fail because I believe in science, and the environment, and national parks and global warming.
I want Trump to fail because I don’t believe that a man who has publicly degraded woman on numerous occasions is an acceptable role model or, for that matter, a decent human being.
I want Trump to fail because I don’t believe in banned books or banned words, particularly words such as diversity, vulnerable and evidence-based.
I want Trump to fail because anti-bullying programs aren’t going to work when the supposed leader of our country is a bully.
I want Trump to fail because this country was founded on the principle of religious freedom – and that includes all religions – not just various Christian denominations.
I want Trump to fail because the United States shouldn’t be a country in which one’s man’s words can hold more power than the truth.
Yes, I want Trump to fail. But to all those people who claim that means I want our country to fail? Think again.
I want our country to succeed, but my definition of a successful country is apparently different from theirs.
Because to me, a successful country is one that puts people over money, science over profit and love and respect over hate and prejudice.
And if supporting people who put that agenda first and opposing those who don’t isn’t patriotic? Then I don’t know what is.
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.
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.
I noticed the shoe just after dawn. It was lying on the gravel in a weedy, deserted parking area.
It certainly wasn’t the only single, abandoned shoe I’ve ever noticed. Over the decades, I’ve seen more lonely shoes in random places than I can possibly remember.
But this shoe caught my attention because it triggered a memory about something that happened in almost that exact same location last summer.
In both cases, I was peddling my bike down a straight stretch of road after conquering a particularly long and steep hill.
But that time, I wasn’t alone on the road. Instead, three bedraggled teenagers with two suitcases and an extremely, unenthusiastic dog were trudging along the shoulder. As I rode by, the boy yelled at me to stop.
My curiosity outweighed any concerns I should have had, so I obeyed.
“Hey, is this the way to Oregon?” the boy asked. In one hand, he was holding a rope that was tied loosely around his poor dog’s neck. One of the suitcases sat at his feet.
“Where?” I asked. We were currently standing on a rural road in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. People with no motor vehicle generally don’t ask directions to a state that is 2,500 miles away.
“Oregon,” he repeated.
“The state?” I asked.
One of the girls gave me a look I knew well. It’s the one every teenager gives a clueless adult.
“Yes,” she said. “We are going to the state of Oregon.”
When I asked why, I was rewarded with the same look again. “Because we want to,” she replied.
“Oh,” I said. “Well, that’s a really long way to walk.”
“We’ve already come all the way from Hagerstown,” the boy announced proudly. “Are we going in the right direction?”
Since Hagerstown was only 20 miles away, his efforts to impress me weren’t very successful. At the same time, they were heading northwest. So that’s what I told them.
They seemed satisfied with my answer, thanked me, and continued their walk down the road. On my return about 20 minutes later, they were still trudging along. I waved, and they waved back.
Shortly after I passed them, I noticed one of their suitcases on the side of the road. My first thought was that it must have gotten quite heavy. My second thought was relief that at least they hadn’t abandoned the dog. And my third thought was to wonder how much more they would abandon before they simply abandoned hope of getting to Oregon.
Or maybe, against all odds, they actually did get there.
I’ll never know.
For a few a days after our encounter, I paid attention to the news in case there were any reports of three missing or runaway teens. There weren’t any.
And so, I forgot about them. At least, I forgot about them until the sight of that shoe last Monday morning reminded me of the discarded suitcase, those kids, and of impossible dreams.
For years, I’ve considered single, lost shoes – or other personal items – on the side of the road as a mystery. I’ve never understood how a person could just lose one shoe or why they wouldn’t go back to get it.
Maybe what I’ve been missing is that, to the owners, the shoe wasn’t important. It was an item that could be replaced. For them, going back for one thing wasn’t nearly as important as moving forward down the road of life – wherever it may go and toward whatever dreams they were following.
Personally, I’ve spent too much time looking for things I’ve lost only to lose sight of where I wanted to go.
But this past week, the sight of just one shoe served as a reminder that getting where we want to go sometimes requires letting go of what we already have.
So yeah. First Lady Melania Trump wore a really expensive jacket during her visit to Italy last week. The Dolce & Gabbana she sported in Sicily basically cost as much as I make during an entire year.
Stop right there.
I hope you didn’t start calculating my salary along with my education and my years of experience and then judge me based on my earnings.
But if you did, I understand. That’s what most Americans do.
We tend to equate the size of a person’s salary or bank account with success. If someone makes a lot of money, that must mean they’ve done something right… they’ve applied themselves and persevered. And if they are poor? They obviously need to try harder.
In reality, that’s completely ridiculous. I’m not rich for a lot of different reasons: I wasn’t born into a wealthy family and having a high paying job was never my priority. I wanted to do work that I found satisfying and meaningful, which is how I landed in social work. I will never garner a big salary, but I’m actually a very hard worker.
On the flip side, Melania Trump became a model and then she married a super rich guy. Those were her choices, and I shouldn’t judge her for them just as I hope people don’t judge me for mine. If she weren’t married to the President of the United States, the cost of her jacket certainly wouldn’t be making headlines nor would people be citing her expensive choices as reprehensible in light of her husband’s proposed budget and stance on social benefit programs.
Don’t get me wrong.
I understand the outcry. I too am completely appalled by Trump and his proposed budget. And yes, I admit that I can’t help but believe that Trump has no sympathy for the poor partly because he can’t relate to their situation.
But equating the size of the Trumps’ bank accounts to his proposed budget is as irrelevant as claiming our social and budget problems are the fault of poor people who don’t try hard enough. President John Kennedy and Senator Jay Rockefeller also came from wealth, yet they always took into consideration the least among us.
Being wealthy and being able to pay $51,500 for one article of clothing have nothing to do with a commitment to help our less fortunate neighbor.
Being a person of wealth doesn’t mean you lack compassion for the poor any more than living in poverty means you expect society to support you. Of course there are rich people who only think about themselves just as there are poor people who want to “live off the system.”
But stereotyping and making assumptions does no one any good.
Money doesn’t define us. The way we treat our fellow human beings does.
Our role in life is to support each other and to call out those who don’t. It’s that simple.
Some of us can help because we have plenty of money to meet our own needs and enough to help others. Others can give our time and our God-given talents to mentor, teach, or guide those who need extra assistance. And all of us can raise our voices in support of those who need us most.
It’s just not about the money.
It should never be about the money, and none of us should care how much anyone else spends for clothes.
With that said, I have to admit that even if I had $51,500 to spend on one jacket, it would look absolutely nothing like Melania’s, which I think is ugly and obnoxious.
But there is nothing wrong with judging an item of clothing.
It’s the people who wear the clothes who shouldn’t be evaluated based on appearances alone.