(January 24, 2020)
Discovering notes scribbled in my eclectic cursive
on note pads used to take notes for class assignments
some with no dates to suggest when they were written
For some reason I decided to save them
when I tore out other pages for recycling
Today, I’ll type them while I watch it snow
on top of icy sidewalks
left by last night’s freezing rain
The following is from one of my darker days …
I know without a doubt
my life on earth is running out
a liberating thought
that sparks a memory of what you taught
live as if this is the only time you have –
love, laugh, see and share the beauty
and call out injustice
because it matters
for those you leave behind
Notes on the side of the page –
“clean water for healthy communities WWF (n.d.)”
Perhaps it inspired the following disconnected thoughts …
Ah dear child
did you choose to be born in a time & place
where your odds of survival
were low & the likelihood of
Did you choose to be born
These thoughts must have contributed to what followed…
Listening to the strident call of a blue jay
& chitter of chickadees in the distance
as I greet another grey dreary day
in the muted morning light
I find myself wondering.
What right do I have
to moments of peace & joy
when so many others are suffering?
It makes me question
if we really have a choice
about when and where we’re born
Did children choose
to be born in a time & place
where the odds of survival
were low & the likelihood of suffering extreme?
Did others risk heart & soul
to be born with blinding privilege
imprisoned in a gated community
relying on servants with practical skills
to provide all of life’s necessities?
I don’t’s have any answers for others
but I suspect that I did have a choice
and chose to be born where & when I was
into a liminal space in between
cultures, religions, and changing social statuses,
on the cusp of two astrological signs
(Pisces & Aquarius)
curious to understand the world
through others’ eyes
to open my heart and my mind
and share both the suffering & beauty I found
Sometimes the windego spirit
that travels the world gains ground
capturing good souls near it
hopefully a momentary weakness found
I watch with growing sadness and concern
as some trusted friends succumb
and uncharacteristically begin to turn
becoming angry and unkind…
(February 1, 2020)
Watching the exchange between a squirrel and crow yesterday morning…
The squirrel was sitting on a willow branch munching away at something.
Suddenly a crow spied the squirrel and landed on the branch not too far away.
The crow leaned toward the squirrel, chattering loudly.
The squirrel just kept eating.
After a minute or two the crow hopped over the squirrel and landed on the other side of the branch to continue its scolding chatter.
The squirrel never even looked up.
She just kept eating.
The crow finally grew bored and flew away, and the squirrel scampered away and climbed up to the top of the tree.
Long ago, my daughter taught me that keeping one’s focus on wonder and joy can transform the world around us in profound and unexpected ways.
It’s a lesson I am trying to apply as I arise each morning to grade student papers, prepare class lectures, and shovel snow.
(February 17, 2020)
As I greet the morning,
Looking at the blanket of new-fallen snow,
I find myself wondering.
How many children have a safe place to go
in the world today?
I remember my safe place as a child
It wasn’t my home where violence could erupt
unprovoked at any moment
It wasn’t out playing with neighborhood kids
They were rough and cruel bullies
It was nature that provided solace
and a sense of safety
As a parent who struggled to work and care
I realize I don’t know if my daughter
had safe places as a child anywhere
It’s a question I plan to ask her
when she returns from her trip to Mexico
This morning I don’t need to wonder
if any place is safe now for children
as those in power do nothing to protect the earth
from corporate plunder and destruction
No child is safe from the folly and scourge of wars and ecocide,
not even those in gated communities
I doubt those in power or those who compete to lead
ever ponder the most important responsibility they carry –
Figuring out how to inspire those whom they aim to govern
to work together to create truly safe places for all children
Despite my best efforts to ensure a safe place for my grandchildren
their safety and that of future generations
is inextricably connected to the health of the earth
and all of our relations
Although classes officially began this past weekend, we had to cancel our first face-to-face meetings because of weather. Thursday, the day before my first class was scheduled to meet, dawned with a bright sun highlighting the deep piles of snow from the last storms, with nary a cloud in the sky. Weather radar showed the storms far to the south, giving us all false hope we would be spared from the two-day storm that was predicted. Friday morning radar showed the storm beginning its rapid approach. We decided to err on the side of safety for the sake of students and faculty who travel for classes, some from long distances.
The storm that was predicted came just as the first class, research, was scheduled to begin. By Saturday afternoon, it brought fierce winds and a foot of fast falling snow, sometimes creating whiteout conditions. We were grateful we made the decision to cancel classes although it meant more work. It’s already challenging to plan classes that cover so much information when we only meet eight times face-to-face every other week. Alternate weeks are online.
Although so many colleges and universities are pushing online courses, it has been our experience that just doesn’t work for some courses. Interaction and dialogical exchanges enable students to discuss differing views about complex issues in a safe and thoughtful manner. It’s a powerful way to expose students to differing possibilities. Although this approach has proven to be effective, WordPress spell checker doesn’t even recognize the word “dialogic” and few studies have been done to test its effectiveness.
I also always learn something new when I teach. The following poem and discussion was inspired by past students from diverse backgrounds who were enrolled in the Saturday class I co-teach with a friend. That first class in mezzo and macro social work practice was also cancelled.
An important foundation for everything I teach focuses on initial assignments designed to help students learn more about the world and themselves. They are asked to critically examine taken-for granted socialization and how it has influenced what they see and believe about the world.
As my last post makes clear, I have thought a great deal about the historical trauma Native American, First Nations, and Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Over the years, though, I have also learned something about the effects of displacement for those who have immigrated elsewhere for a variety of reasons. Many were forced to brave that momentous transformative prospect by larger social forces over which they had no control.
We use the metaphor of trees to help students explore roots, changing social and natural environmental factors throughout history, and possibilities to draw on roots and history for reweaving community connections. (Links to old posts that describe aspects of the class are posted at the end for anyone who is interested in learning more.)
It has always been challenging to help students understand why knowing their roots is important when their ancestors may have come from so many different countries and cultures. A couple years ago, I remembered my fascination with the banyan trees I saw in Hawaii. They were not like anything I had ever seen before and they inspired me to think about immigration, adaptation, and assimilation in new ways.
Greeting the morning contemplating Lahaina’s Banyan Tree
removed from its homeland, an involuntary out-of-place refugee
planted on an island far away commemorating colonial supremacy
Once I stood beneath its massive protective canopy
unaware of its suffering and symbolic history
grateful for its beauty and the cooling shade it accorded me
Now I ponder colonial displacement from different frames
considering both the grievous irredeemable losses and potential gains
What does it mean to stand alone in a land that’s not one’s own?
removed from the environment one’s species has always called home?
unable to return to be among protective kindred, thus resigned?
to serve, without a choice, the frivolous hubris of mankind?
In changing times Lahaina’s Banyan Tree symbolizes resilience and adaptability
surviving storms and droughts in a foreign land for more than a century
touching hearts throughout the years, inspiring kindness and creativity
giving others who are also displaced a sense of home, community
beneath an ever-expanding crown of a now deep-rooted beloved tree
This poem was inspired by a class I am revising for the upcoming semester. I have been thinking about ecosystems, communities of living organisms nested within specific environments forming an interactive network with the elements (earth, air, and waters) available in their surroundings. The myriad of living interactive systems around the globe have had to adapt to ever-changing conditions throughout history. Some plant and animal species have become extinct in this ongoing process.
Often, these changes are viewed and portrayed primarily by what has been lost, perhaps forever. Much as I sometimes romantically imagine that we can return to earlier ways, I know we can’t go back. The world has changed. But there are things that we can learn from our ancestors and from the trees that help sustain the health of the world.
I remember the Banyan tree that so amazed me when I visited Maui and Oahu with my daughter in 1998. The plaque pictured above tells a little bit about the tree’s history and symbolism. It was planted in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina. What I found most heartening in the brief historical accounts I read is the growing awareness among people about the need to take better care of the Banyan.
Note the changes visible in the photos from 1998 and 2009. The tile pavers have been removed, allowing the earth to breathe, although more work may be needed to assure adequate moisture and nourishment.
”The tree has been subject to severe stress due to drought conditions, soil compaction from foot and vehicle traffic in the park, and also due to developmental activities in the vicinity. As a result, restrictions have been imposed … Its sustenance has been ensured by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation by installing an irrigation system in the park” (Wikipedia).
I don’t believe we can turn back time, but we can learn how to welcome and care for those who are displaced like the Banyan by forces outside of their control. This is one of the key lessons I hope to pass on to my students next semester.
Links to Older Posts that Describe Aspects of the Mezzo/Macro Practice Class:
This is the third installment of old posts. Revisiting the post about my third grade experiences made me realize how funny memories can be. It’s as if certain events stand out, disconnected from the chronological order of what went before and after. In the process of revisiting them, connections may sometimes appear.
The connection of The Fool’s Prayer to this week’s older post is clear. In some ways, I consciously chose to be somewhat of a jester when I presented serious information about the legacy of historical trauma carried by First Nations/Native American/Indigenous Peoples. After deciding to repost this account, I wondered about the chronology of last week’s post. Did I convince my mother to come talk to my third grade class about her Ojibwe heritage before or after we shared our our poetry selections? I’m not sure if I will ever know for sure which came first or whether it would have made any difference.
I definitely inherited the legacy of historical trauma, though, from my mother and both of her parents. The shame my mother carried because of her heritage saddened me deeply. It made me want to prove that we were just as smart and gifted as others, more for her sake than for mine. Despite my many self-doubts, my mother’s shame continued to inspire me to keep trying to overcome obstacles, to make her proud. I’m not sure if she ever really knew what I did in my career, but she did tell me at one point that I was “the one bright star” in her life. That’s a heavy responsibility to carry and I’m not sure I did it very well…
Years ago, I was asked to be a keynote speaker for a conference sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The audience would be BIA and tribal social services staff from the U.S., primarily from the Great Lakes and Western states. The speaker’s fee they offered me was offensively large in relation to the $30,000 annual budget my tribe (the Sokaogon Chippewa Community) received to address the needs of children and families living on the reservation, or in the case of child welfare, throughout the state and country. The truth is I don’t like speaking in public, so I typically look for diplomatic reasons to decline invitations. In this case, I listed some conditions that I hoped would be reasons for the BIA to withdraw the offer. First, I told the BIA administrator that I would be willing to speak if they paid my travel expenses and per diem for meals and lodging. Second, I asked them to create a special contract to award the speaker fees to my tribe to fund flexible services for children and families. To my surprise, the BIA administrator agreed, so I signed the contract.
As the date of the conference neared, I was given additional directions about what I would need to speak about. The newest fad in federal bureaucracies was the management video – FISH – that emerged from the extraordinarily successful approaches used by the Seattle fish market. Staff at the market were encouraged by management to entertain and connect with their customers — the video link I watched showed staff throwing fish to each other over the heads of the customers or singing about the unique virtues of different kinds of fish. It was a very funny video and on some levels emphasized the fact that work should be fun and one’s clients or customers should be the focus of a worker’s attention in public and private service industries.
Photo Credit: lakesidelodge.co.za
Yet as I reflected on how to interweave the message of “FISH” into a presentation for tribal staff, the prospect became daunting.
2. Make their day,
3. Be there, and
4. Choose your attitude.
I was extremely uncomfortable with the audacity of telling staff whose client loads were over 100 that the way to survive overwhelming responsibilities with inadequate resources, bureaucratic inertia, and racism from surrounding communities was really up to them. All it would take to improve their jobs was their willingness to change their attitudes. Needless to say, I decided I had to not only explain the FISH model, but also critique it from a Native American perspective. And really, I was volunteering my time. The only constraints I felt were to provide useful information to the audience and not embarrass my tribe.
The day of the training, I put on my funny fish-print jumper. At least my appearance would entertain the audience of more than 100 people. Presenters were introduced by the director of the sponsoring Regional BIA Office in a unique themed way — she threw cloth fish our way for us to catch before we were introduced. (Yes, amazingly, I caught mine.)
The opening remarks were delayed by technical difficulties. But then, I was next up. I decided to use old technology – transparencies – so there was no need to wait for computers and video projectors. I began my presentation, “Of Fish and Families,” by diplomatically discussing the FISH Principles. But I couldn’t ignore the need to explain that the implied goal of the FISH model was to increase corporate profits by maintaining the existing customer base, attracting new customers, selling more products, and decreasing staff turnover. (I could see the Regional BIA Office Director seated in the front row begin to frown, but I kept going.)
I explained that it would be nice if tribal social services could increase funding in this way, but that isn’t how tribal social services work – really this only works for for-profit prisons. The goals of tribal governments are profoundly different: preserving sovereignty; protecting people, land and resources; maintaining social order; and preserving culture. Tribal services “customers” are not buying a special treat or even a necessity. They are neglected or abused children, struggling families and individuals, and foster or adoptive families. The job of tribal staff is to help clients obtain the services and supports they need to heal and become self-sufficient, and healing the community ultimately means working yourself out of a job. (An even deeper frown)
So how do the FISH principles fit with the attributes of successful human service programs? Based on a national study of programs that demonstrated success in improving people’s lives, there are some things that may be helpful for tribes to consider. Some of these principles reflect what we can learn from FISH, highlighted in blue on the list, but some are unique to non-profit services.
Successful human service programs:
Are comprehensive, flexible, responsive, and persevering;
See children in the context of their families;
Deal with families as parts of neighborhoods and communities;
Have a long-term, preventive orientation, a clear mission, and continue to evolve over time;
Are well managed by competent individuals with clearly identifiable skills;
Are staffed by people who are trained and supported to provide high-quality, responsive services; and
Operate in settings that encourage practitioners to build strong relationships based on mutual trust and respect.” (Lisbeth B. Schorr, 1998. Common purpose: Strengthening families and neighborhoods to rebuild America, pp. 5-10)
How do these attributes and principles fit within the context of tribal sovereignty? (An even deeper frown and arms are crossed)
The problem with policies and programs developed to serve general populations is that they are too often decontextualized and ahistorical. They fail to incorporate a recognition that power, history and culture matter. The external forces tribes deal with make innovation challenging: unequal power relationships between tribes and federal policy makers and funders; the imposition of Euro-American values and ideologies; Federal laws that limit tribal sovereignty (e.g., Public Law 280 and the Adoption and Safe Families Act); Euro-American institutions, organizational structures, and practice approaches; and legacies of colonial oppression. The reality we all face is more than responding to urgent contemporary issues. Many of the challenges tribal people experience now have roots in historical legacies of unresolved trauma.
As a speaker, I always look for ways to involve the audience. In this case, I had decided to experiment by using something I had observed in a workshop conducted with service providers and community members on an Ojibwe reservation. I asked for volunteers to help me illustrate how unresolved grief and loss are passed on from generation to generation. The audience came alive and many hands were raised. I only needed five, so I tried to pick people of different ages in different places around the large room. (The Regional BIA Office Director used this opportunity to get up and walk to the back of the room, where she remained standing for the rest of the session, arms crossed, with an openly angry expression by now.)
We “sculpted” the weight of oppression for each succeeding generation, as illustrated in the following figure. For each historical era, the audience was asked to shout out the historical events that occurred for their tribe. The volunteers lined up, all facing the same side wall, each representing one historical era.
Contact Era: massive death mostly due to disease, displacement, land loss, massacres, missionary efforts to “civilize” Native Americans
Conflict/Domination Era: massive death due to disease, warfare deaths, removal of children to boarding schools, displacement, land loss, customs outlawed
Assimilation Era: land loss, tribes placed on reservations, U.S. Congress assumed plenary power over tribes, removal of children to boarding schools, more customs outlawed
Integration Era: Corporate form imposed on tribal governments, children forced to attend off-reservation public schools, termination of some tribes, relocation of families from reservations to urban areas, states granted jurisdictional powers over civil issues (e.g., child welfare)
Self-Determination/Self-Governance Era: limited sovereignty returned for tribal administration, justice systems, health and social services, child welfare
(The Five Generations Exercise, Recovery Foundation, 1999, High Risk Kids Workshop Manual, p. 27.)
For the first era, the time of early contact (1500s-1770s), many spoke of massive death, massacres, and land loss. When it was time to move on, the representative of the first era leaned forward and placed her hands on the shoulders of the next generation, symbolizing the weight of unresolved grief from so many losses that would be carried on the shoulders of the next generation. Again, the audience called out the events for tribes during the era of conflict and colonial domination.
As each era was covered, the generational representative would lean on the shoulders of the next in line. By the time we reached the present day representative, he was struggling to stand with the weight of the past on his shoulders. Then, it was time for a change. The present day representative was asked to turn around and face the history. The weight was still there, resting on his shoulders, but our physical bodies are better able to deal with the weight if we are facing it, and so are our emotions.
By acknowledging our history, we can bear it. We can understand how the legacy of loss and unresolved grief has affected our families and communities and begin the process of healing. Thank raises a crucial question.
What can we do knowing that our work to help people and communities heal will still remain challenging?
I suspected that my next topic would be the final straw for the Regional BIA Office Director. I shared the story of the starfish. The topic was FISH after all, and we needed to lighten the mood. The starfish story reminds people that whatever they do to improve things does make a difference, no matter how insignificant it may seem.
I ended by tying it all back to simple ways to apply the messages of FISH in our work.
“Our jobs may sometimes seem impossible or futile given the number of children and families who need help and the seriousness and complexity of the challenges families face. However, we can remember the story of the starfish. We can choose to do what is in our power – we can be there with people even if we don’t have all of the resources we would like to offer them. When we see others doing what they can, we can offer encouragement, like the young man in the story of the starfish. We can join them, and help organize others to help. We can choose our attitude and remember that it is no small accomplishment to improve the quality of the day with simple kindness.”
The audience was gracious and applauded loudly. Most waited to talk with me afterwards, and many wanted to know more about the sculpting exercise – tribal elders, leaders, service staff, and BIA administrators were all eager to share it with others. They told me the presentation touched them deeply because they had an opportunity to glimpse larger historical forces that continue to make their lives and jobs so challenging.
It’s no surprise that the Regional BIA Office Director was not among those who were excited. I was never asked to speak again at a BIA conference. Yet in the end, I am glad I made the decision to accept the engagement. My tribe did have a little extra funding to provide services, I had a chance to see a Rocky Mountain city during forest fire season, and I had an opportunity to meet many inspiring people. Oh, and it was the only chance I had to wear my funny fish-print jumper. My daughter has inherited it, and now she will have a story to go with it.
This is the second installment of sharing older posts while I focus on surviving the beginning of a new semester. It deals with the beginning journey of discovering a philosophy of education.
Sometimes important life lessons are painful. We may learn what we don’t want to be when we grow up. As someone who never entertained being a college professor, I learned a most valuable lesson as a young child about the difference between being an educator who encourages excellence and critical thinking rather than one who serves as an agent of normalization and social control.
I have had the honor of working with students who saw the world through many different lenses. Some were smarter, some kinder, some were better thinkers and writers, and many traveled further or overcame challenges I couldn’t even imagine. It was and still is my intention to encourage others to discover and express their gifts.
I might not have realized the importance of this approach without experiencing a third-grade teacher who did quite the opposite. She led me down a path of critical reflection at an early age and I have learned to be deeply grateful for that lesson.
Third grade. Our assignment was to find a poem we could memorize and recite to the class. I grew up in a working class home with few books: my mother’s text about practical nursing and her high school English text, Adventures in American Literature, and my father’s set of Popular Mechanics, the poor man’s version of an encyclopedia. Given the limited choices, I read through my mother’s English literature text and selected the poem that had the most meaning to me, “The Fool’s Prayer.”
The Fool’s Prayer
Edward Rowland Sill (1841-1887)
The royal feast was done; the King
Sought some new sport to banish care,
And to his jester cried: “Sir Fool,
Kneel now, and make for us a prayer!”
The jester doffed his cap and bells,
And stood the mocking court before;
They could not see the bitter smile
Behind the painted grin he wore.
He bowed his head, and bent his knee
Upon the Monarch’s silken stool;
His pleading voice arose: “O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!
“No pity, Lord, could change the heart
From red with wrong to white as wool;
The rod must heal the sin: but Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!
“‘Tis not by guilt the onward sweep
Of truth and right, O Lord, we stay;
‘Tis by our follies that so long
We hold the earth from heaven away.
“These clumsy feet, still in the mire,
Go crushing blossoms without end;
The hard, well-meaning hands we thrust
Among the heart-strings of a friend.
“The ill-timed truth we might have kept –
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense to say –
Who knows how grandly it had rung?
“Our faults no tenderness should ask,
The chastening stripes must cleanse them all;
But for our blunders – oh in shame
Before the eyes of heaven we fall.
“Earth bears no balsam for mistakes;
Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool
That did his will; but ‘Thou, O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!”
The room was hushed: In silence rose the
The King, and sought his gardens cool,
And walked apart, and murmured low,
“Be merciful to me, a fool!”
(H.S. Schweikert, R. B. Inglis, & J. Gehlmann, Eds., 1936, pp. 670-671)
Presentation day was one of nervous anticipation for me. I was excited to share what I thought was an important message with my classmates. But my anxiety grew as I sat through the recitation of nursery rhymes and “Twinkle-twinkle little star.” “Oops,” I thought, “Maybe I made a mistake, but it’s too late now.” When my turn came, I walked to the front of the class and began. I don’t remember how my peers reacted as I recited the poem, probably with exaggerated drama, nor could I see my teacher’s expression. She was seated at her desk behind me. All I remember is from that day forward, my teacher treated me as if I were a leper. The first time I talked to a classmate seated next to me after my performance, the teacher singled me out in front of the class.
“You may not need to listen to what I’m talking about, but the rest of the class does. From now on when we are discussing reading, your job is to stand by the side blackboard and draw.”
Perhaps it was meant as a punishment, but it didn’t seem to be a marker of shame to my peers so I was okay with it. And I really didn’t mind being freed from the prison of a desk as the teacher droned on and on, talking at us. I was free to daydream and create. I was free to ponder the message of the jester. Perhaps my role in life was to let kings and teachers know that they were as human as those over whom they exercised sovereignty. Yet unlike the jester, I couldn’t wear a painted grin. I was born with a face that couldn’t mask feelings, and I didn’t have the playfulness and self-assurance necessary to be a clown. So instead, I became quiet. I learned not to appear too smart – to avoid drawing any attention to myself. But it was too late. I had already learned that those of us who are not kings cannot remain silent forever. If we don’t find effective ways to rein-in kings, things will never change.
Jester Logo by Lesley-Lycanthropy, Jester Logo by Lesley-Lycanthropy on deviantART
Life has granted me many more chances to test out ways to share information that feels important. Perhaps others I have encountered on my journey found the ideas timely and helpful. Like the jester, though, my responsibility is merely to share what flows through me in the moment through words, silences, and actions. I may never know whether anyone is listening. That is as it should be for the messages belong to anyone who is paying attention and understands the meaning in their own way…
As many of you may guess, teaching often means I have much less time to spend on writing posts and visiting your lovely sites. I spent the past few days trying to catch up with visits and replies to comments. Now, I face the daunting task of updating syllabi and building the online components for two classes that begin in less than two weeks. In the interim, I have decided to share some older posts that few people have seen. I will do my best to visit and reply, but I can’t make any promises. I do want you all to know how much I value your work and your presence in my life.
Here is the first installment. It was the first post I wrote for this blog when it was created in February of 2014.
After my policy class this week, I decided to write about a project I coordinated many years ago to address elder abuse. After reading the first draft, I realized that it was missing important details about the challenges caregivers face. That meant I had to face my dreaded file cabinets!
As a child who loved not only to read, but re-read, it was sometimes excruciating to live in a house that had very few books. Although I discovered the public library, I never wanted to return the books I borrowed, resulting in overdue notices and fines that were so embarrassing. I learned to avoid the library if at all possible. As an adult, I started buying my own books, and as a student and professional, I collected copies of every article I read and every handout I gathered from workshops. The number of bookcases and file cabinets I needed grew each year. My file cabinets have taught me an important fact about myself. I am a piler, not a filer. On the days I am determined to organize papers, I come up with logical ways to sort and label. But when I am working on something and need just the right information, I am never able to remember the logic! If the articles are piled, I have little problem remembering which pile it might be in – because I have had to look through every pile hundreds of times to find things. But once they disappear into closed drawers in neatly labeled file folders, I become paralyzed with indecision. “How did I categorize this article in my all-too-fleeting moment of analytic clarity?”
Photo Credit: The messy process of looking for details
I have learned to avoid my file cabinets as assiduously as I avoid libraries. But I have kept stuffing new things in them – there are now 5 of them with extra file drawers in 2 desks. But I haven’t left them behind as I moved from state to state – I might desperately need something that is in them someday! I really did intend to clean them out before my last move, but I only had 3 weeks to get ready and sorting files was just not a priority.
Adding details meant I needed to face my file cabinets. The only way I could ethically describe details from a project so long ago would be to overcome the resistance I feel when I even walk into the room where they are arranged and overcome the dread of opening the drawers. But I did face the challenge and actually made an important discovery not only about the project details, but also about myself as a much younger program developer and person. Even then I really did “walk the talk” of community-driven program development and egalitarian partnerships. Now I think I can tell the “real” story …
Many years ago, I made the decision to leave a well-paying job as a planning and policy analyst for a state government to pursue advanced education and the opportunity to keep learning. In part, my decision was based on the outcome of a recent gubernatorial election. A job that had once made it possible to advocate for improvements for elder services shifted to constant surveillance of every conversation I had with constituents and written justification for every exchange with legislators who requested information. It also shifted from developing innovative new programs to defending programs that were important for elders’ survival and well-being. And in part, the decision was because bureaucracies are stifling places to work even in the best of times. The political appointees who set the agenda for executive branch activities rarely have the power to make many changes that actually improve peoples’ lives within or outside the organization. They can, however, easily make it worse.
To help pay my tuition, I decided to take on a part time job coordinating a federal research and training project to develop and test an intervention to address elder abuse, The Male Caregiver Training Project. The project, conceptualized by a professor and a graduate student, was intended to reduce elder abuse by targeting men who were providing care for older relatives – parents, wives, siblings, or other relations. Although men were less likely to be family caregivers (about 25% of family caregivers at the time), they were more likely to be reported as perpetrators of elder abuse (about 66% of reported perpetrators were men). The assumption of the grant writers was that men who were at risk of abusing elders would voluntarily agree to attend eight, two-hour “training” sessions that were based on behavior modification techniques. The “trainers” would be social work graduate students under the direction of the professor, and the results would be measured to determine the effectiveness using pretest and post-test self-reports. The student who was going to coordinate the project left just as the funding was awarded, so I was asked if I would be willing to coordinate the project.
Of course, I didn’t know all of these details until after I accepted the position and read the grant. As soon as I did, I was amazed that such a proposal had been funded and set out to conceptualize something that might make a difference in the real world. What did I know about being a male caregiver? Really, not much. The only way to learn more was to talk to men who were caring for relatives. I also needed to meet with key staff in the two pilot counties to build trust and partnerships. And the best way to build authentic partnerships was to change who led the sessions. What would university students know about the communities and resources for caregivers? Community staff already had contacts, credibility, and knowledge. Why not involve them not only as leaders of sessions, but also as partners in designing what the intervention would actually involve? And if the intervention was successful, wouldn’t it make more sense for community staff to have a vested interest in seeing the sessions continue after federal grant dollars ended? I called the federal project manager to present my suggestions, and he became excited by the possibilities.
Artwork by Caren Caraway for Workshop Series:tools of the trade for men who care
I met with the directors of human services in both counties and found a key staff person in each who agreed to work with me. They helped me find men who were willing to talk with me about their experiences. The men I met with all had so much to teach others about tenacity and compassion. They also had a great deal to teach me about the types of support that would make their lives as caregivers easier.
The stories I heard were a testament to the best people can be. Six of the seven men who agreed to meet with me were, or had been, caregivers for their wives and were themselves in their 70s or 80s. One was a primary caregiver for his father in his 80s who was experiencing mobility and self-care challenges. A few were understandably guarded in their comments, while others saw the interview as an opportunity to share challenges, sorrow, and struggles with anyone who was willing to listen and care. Alzheimer’s and dementia were the reasons men were caring for their wives. They spoke, often tearfully, about the loss not only of someone they loved to a disease that erased memories and made them strangers, but also about the loss of their closest friend and confidant. They saw it as their responsibility to provide care, often at great personal cost as they dealt with their own physical limitations and financial challenges. Most importantly, they all felt alone. There was no one to talk to about the conflicting emotions they faced. There was no one who could share the physical burden of doing all the cooking, cleaning, shopping, and being on call 24 hours a day. They did the best they could as caregivers because they cared, and they did it alone because they didn’t know anyone they could ask for help or information.
So I summarized the findings, and with the help of my partners in each county, held a general planning meeting in each county that involved all of the key agency staff who dealt with elder issues and services. The purpose was to identify a team in each county that was willing to help develop and present the sessions. I spent a sleepless night before the first community meeting. Yes, I had these powerful interview summaries, and based on that, a suggested list of topics. But we couldn’t call this the Male Caregiver Training Project! Training is something that is done to horses, not that I recommend this approach for horses, but it certainly shouldn’t be how we work with people. As I was taking my morning shower before the meeting, I had an epiphany – we should call the sessions Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care. It highlighted the fundamental strength of the men who shared their stories, and reflected the suggestions they had for ways to help.
Staff in both counties identified resources that could serve as tools and resources to help caregivers. We all learned a great deal from the first workshop session in each county. We thought it would be difficult for men to share emotions, so we began with more informational topics. Yet during the first session in the first county, the men who participated shocked us with their willingness to share the depth of their distress – some spoke of contemplating suicide and murder – so we added crises counselors to the workshop teams. After testing and revising the intervention, six more counties tested the approach. More than 60 men participated in all during the project. Ten years after the grant ended, most of the counties were still conducting sessions, not only for men who were caring for relatives, but also for women. It spread to other counties and other states and eventually was nominated for a national award.
What made the experience rewarding for me was not public recognition. It was the opportunity to meet people, caregivers and staff who cared deeply enough about others to make so many personal sacrifices, and the honor of hearing their stories and working side-by-side to create an intervention that succeeded in improving some peoples’ lives. Among those I met was a reporter for a local paper who captured the essence of the challenges of caregivers and the importance of providing resources and opportunities for sharing.
…For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health. To love and to cherish, till death us do part.
When Jacob and Martha exchanged wedding vows 45 years ago, he was an Army private and she was a schoolteacher. “She was a lovely little gal,” he said as he pulled out a black and white photograph – now yellowed from age—of their wedding day from a manila envelope. “Wasn’t she something?” he asked, speaking more to himself than to a recent visitor….
Like many couples, Jacob and Martha, not their real names, worked for the day they could retire and spend their days growing old together. Today, they are in their 80s, but their dream of carefree retirement is tarnished. Martha has Alzheimer’s disease…. She is easily confused and requires 24-hour-a-day care. Jacob provided that care. Despite his own failing health, he dresses, bathes and feeds his wife. He cooks, cleans the house, does the laundry and orders groceries to be delivered. He is with his wife all the time, declining offers of respite care because, he says, “it upsets her,” when he is gone. Her illness dominates his life….
Jacob was one of the six men who attended the first [Tools of the Trade] workshop series offered last fall…. “It’s was kind of nice getting out,” Jacob said. “The workshop was a very good thing for me. It helped me realize that I’m not alone. I had a chance to talk with others who are in similar situations.”
(Carla McCann, The Janesville Gazette, Wednesday, April 11, 1990, p. 1C)
I didn’t realize until many years later that I would need to know what I learned from caregivers during this project. I remember when my mother first realized something was happening to her. I went to pick her up because she had driven to visit my bother and could not remember how to get home. On the ride home she said, “I don’t know what is happening to me. I can’t remember things. I am so humiliated. I don’t want people to see me this way.” It broke my heart to know that this gentle woman who outlived her husband and survived years of abuse always wishing for a chance to enjoy life would never have that opportunity. At least, I thought, the bad memories will disappear as well.
Dealing with file cabinets has led me down memory lane with memories that are both grateful and sad. I think I will quickly find a place to stuff the project folders back into drawers and wait for the next polar vortex before opening them again. Yet I am grateful that I remembered how many kind and loving people I have met in my travels. I am sharing these memories to say miigwetch (thank you in Ojibwe) to the caregivers of the world and to those who support them.
Carol Hand (1991). Workshop Series: tools of the trade for men who care. Madison, WI: New Ventures of Wisconsin.
Carla McCann (1990, Wednesday, April 11). The Janesville Gazette.
Post Script: I would like to thank Decker at Dispatches from the Asylum for another one of his powerful and lovely short stories. His work reminded me of this old post and inspired me to share it again.
Post-Post Script: I did finally clean up my files on rainy days this summer and managed to reduce the number of file cabinets, although it it still a work in progress…
A few days ago, I wrote these words in the morning.
Please tell me that all of the craziness in the world has a purpose
– that clouded eyes will once again be able to see that the mad rush to own things comes at the cost of life’s wonders as piles of garbage and toxins fill the earth, waters, and skies
– that closed hearts will open with compassion for the suffering of others as children are ripped from loving families seeking refuge and put in cages while farmlands flood and forests burn and bombs destroy people’s homes
– that people really are learning something that will help them become wiser and more aware of both the beauty and ugliness of their immediate surroundings by gazing nonstop at facebook, twitter, google, youtube, and instagram
Please show me something meaningful I can do now to make a positive difference while I am here
When I came home after walking my little dog, an idea came to me. Why not share the play I wrote about Ojibwe child welfare a few years ago with the tribal college where I teach? Of course, my amateurish effort would need a lot of work, but it could make a difference. I called a friend to see what she thought of the idea and discovered the power of synchronicity. She had just met with a former student who wanted to use theater as a way to engage tribal youth. So I spent that day and the next editing and rewriting. The new draft still needed an ending when I had to put it aside for Thanksgiving.
It has become a family tradition to have Thanksgiving dinner at my house. I am the eldest member of my family now. There are so many reasons why I could be cynical about a fictive national holiday, but I really do count my blessings every day, and my family is at the top of the list. So I began the multi-day tasks of cleaning my house and cooking. This year, I decided to do something a bit different after dinner. Last year we all read parts of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address. This year, I asked each family member to read something special I wrote in the past for each of them. My daughter read a poem I wrote for her daughter, my granddaughter, A Song for Little Rose. My granddaughter read a story I wrote for her brother, The ‘Tinky Bush Story. And my grandson read a story I wrote for my daughter, The Lesson of the Butterfly and the Message of the Wind. The little room was filled with light and love and laughter.
The reflections some of my students posted early are a blessing as well. They described important things they learned about themselves and their communities in the research course that will be meeting for the last time this coming weekend. They will all be graduating soon and hopefully will remember and use what they learned about the importance of observing life and thinking critically from a social justice perspective.
I am also deeply grateful to all of my friends in the blogging community. I have not been able to respond to comments or visit other blogs very often. My life has been an emotional rollercoaster ride during November. My way of coping is to stay busy trying to do what I can here and now to live according to the three principles I mentioned in a previous post – compassion, patience, and integrity. It is impossible for me to predict when I will have time to blog regularly again. I have new courses to prep during our brief semester break and a play to finish soon. Please know I send my best wishes to all of you.
Let me end with some photos of November’s lingering gift as I begin the slow heavy task of shoveling snow on this first morning of December.
The joyous chatter of chickadees
draws my gaze and I smile
watching their play
hopping and flitting from the downed limbs
left by the last wind storm
to the still leafy cottonwood branches above
I suspect the birds will be gone
if I leave to get a camera
but I figure it’s worth a try
Alas, I was right
My camera catches a different scene
reminding me of the seemingly impossible
challenges of these times
I am not sure if the scene
is best captured in color or black and white
I remember the dreams
of the neighbor who once lived there
to help low income elders
shared when I helped her cut brush
Her dreams held hostage by a parasitic bank
and at best put on hold through foreclosure
There are times like today
as the first real snow is falling
that offer me a few moments to wonder
“When does adversity spark resilience?”
“And when does it crush the spirit of hope instead?”
Perhaps it requires making the decision anew
to hold onto our dreams anyway
each time we are faced
with a seemingly impossible challenge?
Sometimes it feels like a lesson
that will take more than one lifetime to learn