Friendship

Soon I’ll leave for a brief trip back to Texas. I go most every month to see my father. Because I go so often now, the reality is I see friends from childhood more often than I see my friends here in Chapel Hill. This trip will be particularly festive since I’ll make a brief stop at my college alma mater for an evening with buddies from those days kind enough to make time for me.  I am grateful for these friendships that have lasted a lifetime and mournful that everyday life crowds out the time for friends in my own proverbial backyard.

For those of you who’ve not followed it, I highly recommend the Dear Sugars podcast. The podcast is over but the archives are available for free download.  You won’t regret any 20 minute interval you devote to listening to these two friends reflect on the complications their letter-writers describe. In one series of episodes, they describe the ways in which friendship is different most other relationships. In others, there are external forces that promote hanging-in-there when, however occasionally, frustration, anger, boredom, or any other negativity that finds a way in. With family, in addition to love, memories, and commitment, we are bound by law, blood, finances, and the rest of it. Webs deliberately hard to escape – a situation that gives us time to regain our appreciation for those we love and are committed to when our better angels get lost.  Likewise, at work, our employment may depend on being able to make relationships work with individuals we might otherwise run from. But friendship, whether we find it in the office, with our partners, in a high school class, a college dorm, or the neighbor next door, happens because we choose it.  Again and again, today and tomorrow, until we can’t or because we decide we won’t. In friendship we choose and are chosen even as we gradually, or sometimes all at once, allow those we call friends to know the good and the bad of all that we are.

Almost a month ago now, I received news that someone not quite a friend, but who ran in the circles I did in college had suddenly and inexplicably lost her beautiful, apparently healthy daughter. I have looked repeatedly at the posted picture, a picture so lovely and filled with hope that it seems impossible such a young woman could ever die. It is friends that are walking with this mother through this terrible valley. She has yet to stay alone or cook a meal. Her friends are listening to the stories, embracing her sobs, and holding her up as her feet struggle to find solid ground. And they are doing that because they choose to; there is nothing forcing them, no obligation, only the choice of friendship.

That beautiful picture of that beautiful girl that I never knew keeps reminding me that our life goes by so quickly and we are all so busy and it can all be taken away in a twinkling. But for this moment, I give thanks and praise for friends old and new, those I talk to every week, every month, and those I see once every few years. You know who you are.

 

 

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San Francisco

When we saw her sit down and her tears begin, we dropped to our knees in front of her and joined hands forming a circle with to share and acknowledge her sorrow. What a gift to share our collective grief  with this stranger-friend for a moment.

 

Just back after four days in San Francisco, a city I don’t know well but that has captivated my imagination since I read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series in my 20s. For the most part, I spent my time this visit doing pretty standard work conference activities. But the last night, a colleague cum friend sent a text inviting me to join her and her husband at a Market Street wine bar.  After a longer-than-expected walk, I arrived to a quiet scene.  My friends were there along with two gender bending, male-identified men behind the bar and two women, apparently a couple, sharing quiet conversation.

We were enjoying appetizers and a bottle of wine when my colleague’s husband burst into song with a falsetto that let me know this was going to be no ordinary night.  The three of us are in our 50’s and the songs of our youth were topping the playlist. As my colleague and I talked shop, her husband kept singing and befriended the couple to his left.  Soon enough we put away our workplace concerns and let the impulse to sing and dance take over.  At first, it was the three of us.  One of the bartenders began to act as DJ, taking requests. First Journey, Queen, Pat Benetar, then Bye Bye Miss American Pie, The Cars, more Journey….music that took me back. Another colleague arrived and joined the fun. Eventually, one member of the unknown couple decided to dance with us, and with some trepidation her reluctant partner joined in.  Soon enough the bar tenders were strutting their stuff and we jumped into a joyous, raucous-for-me, evening. I’ve been basking in the glow of the laughter and camaraderie ever since.

But there was so much more to that evening than a spontaneous dance party in a far away city.  Our evening stood in contrast to the news story that had broken that afternoon in which a group of boys from a Catholic school in full MAGA gear appeared to taunt and disrespect a Native American elder at a protest in Washington D.C. What actually happened is now the subject of debate and I’ve not followed every nuance. But our current national life is so filled with stories of open prejudice and hatred that the complexity of this situation hardly matters. We hear similar things almost weekly, incidents that are either ignored or celebrated by our leaders.

Indeed at one point in the night, in the midst of the dancing and laughter, one of the women we met began to cry. A Latinx lesbian woman who valued her Catholic faith even though many who share it would reject her, she was dismayed by the boys’ behavior.  (For the record, many claiming Christ would reject this woman. Her Catholic Church is not alone its exclusion.) For her, because the boys were Catholic she hoped that they would choose to represent a message of Christian love. When we saw her sit down and her tears begin, we dropped to our knees in front of her and joined hands forming a circle to share and acknowledge her sorrow. What a gift to share our collective grief  with this stranger-friend for a moment.

The tears passed and we kept dancing, singing, and laughing. Two very young couples joined the mix, and soon thereafter it was time to call it a night. As we said good-bye, one of the bar tenders explained it was his first night on the job and said we had made it great for him. But really we all made it great for each other. For one evening, by tacit agreement, we all remembered what it was like to be young and open to new people and experiences. We agreed to let our stereotypes drop, stereotypes about how 50 plus straight people, and 40 plus lesbian people, and 30-ish gender bending people are “supposed to” act and relate. Those stereotypes would have kept us in our corners, no spontaneous falsetto, no singing, no dancing, no understanding, no joyful connection. For a moment, as the song goes, we belonged to the light, we belonged to each other, and we belonged together.

 

When we’ve opened a vein…

In the end, my mother died of hypovolemic shock. This means that during the 48 or so hours between when we decided to stop treatment and when she died, the blood drained from her body. With nothing to deliver oxygen to her organs they stopped working. I watched as she became paler, weaker, turned inward, and then took leave. Little did I know that, even then, she was teaching me a lesson I would need very soon.

Her death this summer was not the only trial our family suffered. And while difficult, her death and my grief feels natural and bittersweet, shot through with grace and extraordinary kindness . The experience of her funeral was one of the most beautiful days of my life. People came to be with me when I needed it most. My oldest friend from childhood and her mother were waiting when we arrived at the funeral home. It was the most comforting site I’ve ever seen. My childhood minister’s successor and his wife, spent hours helping my father and me talk about my complex, beautiful, difficult mother. Teachers and friends from high school, friends of my parents, my father’s colleagues, people I’d not seen in years came together in support. There were repeated daily phone calls from friends who could not be physically present. The invisible web we create over time became visible and held me up. My husband, always a prince among men, out did himself in his tenderness. My children learned what it means to say goodbye in the best way, why the life of the spirit is important, and how to honor someone when life is through. Watching their maturity and grace that day was the greatest gift I have received as a mother.

But sadly, another death followed my mother’s “good death” and chaos came with it. One person was literally on life support and someone else was figuratively there. As I’ve thought of all that unfolded , the phrase “opening a vein” came to mind. But, in current parlance, “to open a vein” indicates that you no longer find whatever you are experiencing worth your time and you want to open a vein to escape. That is not what I mean.  Fredrick Buechner uses the phrase http://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2017/7/23/open-a-vein to describe a writer pouring their experience into a reader. This definition hits closer to my own:  lending life to someone deeply and dangerously suffering. Such an outpouring is sometimes necessary and always perilous. The blood supply, whether literal or figurative, can be depleted much faster than the body can replenish it. When you “open a vein” for another, you risk your life to save theirs. In my case, others stepped in just as I was approaching the emotional doppelganger of hypovolemic shock. Patience, empathy, and compassion –  the vital organs of the spirit – were on the brink of shutting down. The subsequent tiredness that enveloped me is like nothing I’ve ever known. Yet, I would “open that vein” again and do not believe that I should receive particular sympathy or accolade for what I did. None of us know when we will find ourselves battered and bleeding on our own Jericho road. There but for the grace of God…

Soon it will be time to fully return to the world of the living. But I know I have to replenish. Just for awhile, I am giving myself what I want as often as I can. And what I want is quiet. To sit on the screen porch listening to the natural world, to drink coffee, to walk with my dog as the leaves begin to fall, to survey the profusely blooming morning glories that I planted just before all of this started. I want to be with the truth-tellers, the mystics, those who are gracious, nurturing, joyful, compassionate, funny, and sincere. Those qualities in others feed the spirit and will call me back to who I am at my best. So for right now, don’t count on me to engage in every fight, solve problems, or right wrongs.  The blood supply is coming back up and I am feeling stronger each day. But the porch is open and I welcome good company.

Pandora and that Box

Somewhat paradoxically, social media keeps me from living in echo chambers in which the only people I engage with are people that think pretty much like I do. Through these platforms, I’ve learned about news sources I’d never heard of, seen views expressed that shock and surprise me, and I’m sure have expressed views that might shock and surprise others. So I was worried about the election until just before when I became completely convinced that HRC would be elected as our first woman president. And I was excited. She has 30 plus years in public service, has worked for kids and families her whole career, and has raised a family while doing demanding work outside of the home. I guess, although I’m not nearly as accomplished as she, I identified with her. And her loss, accordingly, has felt very personal.

At first, my immediate concern was my children, how to keep them from getting mired in cynicism, fear, and negativity. That effort kept me distanced from my own emotions for a day or so. And then the news reports and personal anecdotes began. The KKK will have a victory celebration for the president elect in North Carolina. A friend witnessed a pick up truck full of young men at a gas station harassing a young woman – telling her they were going to “grab her by the p___y,“ quoting the president elect. A former student described a note left on a neighbor’s door signed “Trump Train” telling a gay couple they were “sick” and should “get out” of the neighborhood. The couple has lived there for years.

My colleagues who I work with on behalf of new immigrant kids and families are getting desperate calls from students in local community colleges most of whom are participants in the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program seeking information and support, some feeling suicidal, and some acting on those feelings. These incidents are not in some far away place. They are not third hand reports. They are happening to people I know in my community. I am heartsick.

Likewise, old friends who I rarely see but who have meant a lot to me at different times in my life feel targeted for their political choices, labeled bigots, etc. Most of the people I know that voted for Trump or a third party candidate are not bigots. They may not be well-versed in power and privilege. But they do not want to persecute others based on race, creed, or sexuality. They voted their financial interests. Or they are deeply anti-abortion. Or they have hated the Clintons for decades and could not move beyond that. I also doubt they think there will be steel mills again in Ohio or textile manufacturing in North Carolina given a Trump presidency. They voted based on one or two issues personally important to them and they are angry that they are being labeled. As I read their posts, silence seems to be the best option but also a betrayal of my own principles and of those people made so vulnerable by the outcome of this election.

This is the state in which we find ourselves when a candidate makes a deal with the devil like Donald Trump has made. Perhaps his ultimate goal is to support business interests in ways that democrats disagree with. Given that he’s never governed we have no idea what he real motives are. Like past conservative nominees he has used social issues like abortion to stir up his base. As the LA Times reported this week, the chances of the Supreme Court reversing itself on Roe v. Wade are quite slim no matter who is president. But, the great departure, that threatens the reputations of many that voted for him, is his deliberate, undisguised, and consistent appeal to race-baiting combined with disdain for women, people with disabilities, among many others. A friend working the polls in a small town in North Carolina affirmed this and described people coming to the polls saying, “I haven’t voted in years. But I’m coming out to vote for Trump. He says what I think.”

Some thoughts are best left unspoken. Now that they’ve been spoken by an elected leader, Pandora’s box has flown open and the poisonous special sauce that got Trump elected has spilled onto everyone who has helped him along the way. Do I blame my Trump-supporting friends for the KKK rallies, for children being harassed in school because of their religion or skin color, for women being told in Starbucks, “Smile honey. We beat the c_ _t.?” How do I answer such a question? I am furious with them and I love them still.

The election is over. A choice has been made which can’t be undone at least for four years. But we can unify around a message to the new president and send it clearly whether we supported him or did not. This demon that makes neighbors into hated “others” has no place in American democracy. Job one for him is to use his bully pulpit to put that demon back in the box and throw away the key. It is his first test as president and we cannot wait until January for him to undertake it.

Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum
Epimetheus opening Pandora’s Box.
Giulio Bonasone (Italian, active Rome and Bologna, 1531–after 1576)

Calling Out

Not surprisingly an immigrant family is calling us back to the truth of the American experiment, to E Pluribus Unum, from many, one. Perhaps immigrant families understand best because they’ve often lived without opportunity or liberty and can recognize threats to which those of us not recently immigrated, are blind.

Also unsurprisingly, the military features in this call. The military as a social institution has long brought people from all backgrounds and social strata together for common purpose – not perfectly, not easily, but steadfastly nonetheless. My father fought in World War 2 and several years ago, after a lifetime of silence, he told me the stories of his service in the Pacific. The story began with this vignette. From his home on a farm in Missouri, he was sent to mid-shipman’s school in New York City. There, for six months, he trained to be a Navy navigator with other young men from across the country. He recounted being invited to the home of a classmate who lived in Brooklyn in an Italian-Catholic family. At that point, my father had never been to a Catholic church or known a person of Italian descent. His life would take him many places but it is that cross-cultural moment that he has remembered all of his long life. He spoke of how welcoming the family was, the delicious, traditional Italian meal, how good it felt be in someone’s home, and how much the kindness extended to him meant. It was a small moment in a momentous time that speaks volumes.

Mrs. Kahn writing of her son in the Washington Post, described a young man about the same age as my father when he went to war. Like many before him, her son wanted to do his duty and serve his country. Hear that again: his country, his chosen country. He made that choice with other young people from all walks of life. Surely there were many soldiers he fought beside who did not share his ethnic and religious heritage. Yet, they worked together, earning each other’s respect and loyalty. That common purpose and willingness to embrace difference is the core of the American experiment. The choice for president has become a referendum on that experiment. Can we still be out of many, one?

We dishonor all those who have defended this nation when we degrade those among us who are labeled “outsiders” because of their skin color, their religion, their traditions, or their heritage. The Kahns have called out to us in powerful voice and with great love, to stand up and be counted. If America is exceptional, it is because we are one out of many. To be one out of many means to disagree, to compromise, to let the majority rule, to speak out, and to listen to many voices. It is to see common humanity in those that our sons and daughters fight beside and, indeed, even against. At a recent visit to Pearl Harbor, our tour guide told us that the commanding officer on the good ship Missouri required a military burial for a kamikaze pilot who had crashed into the ship threatening all on board. That commander told his troops that, although the dead pilot was their enemy, like them he was doing a job his country had asked him to do and deserved a dignified burial. Leadership that calls each of us to do our best by our fellows not our worst is what we must seek, leadership that calls us back from the current abyss to be one out of many.

photo credit: ABC News

No Bad Days

This morning, I started writing sitting on a seawall where my young son was fishing. Computer out, glasses on, skin tan, and my hair a little blonder because of sand and sea, I was reveling in my son’s fun, the beautiful water, enjoying a peaceful moment. A man came by and asked the following question: “What do you call a smart, beautiful, blonde?” Although I didn’t ask, he gave me an answer. “A golden retriever!” When I looked perplexed, he asked if I didn’t like jokes. I smiled and went back to my writing. He then asked if I wanted to hear something “a little bit dirty.” I declined and bid him adieu. Sexism at its finest. Yet, it always takes me off guard and I can never respond in the moment with the quick comeback that will put the offender in his place. The incident was all the more jarring sitting in such an idyllic spot.

Of course, not nearly as jarring than the day’s news. When we’re on vacation, my husband deletes Twitter from his phone and strongly requests that I not bring work along. I like to post pictures to Facebook mainly so our extended families can follow along on our adventures, a habit that keeps me connected to the strife that never seems to stop including this morning’s reports from Baton Rouge. Self-doubt floods in as I post pictures of stunning scenery and family fun while colleagues and friends are trying to help others understand why #all lives matter is an easy out from acknowledging systemic racism and its ever-spinning sequelae. I find myself asking is it okay to disengage for a while? Is it even possible?

“Self-care” is a term that was unknown to me when I was in my masters program; now, my students talk about it all the time. There is more recognition that social work and other helping professions takes a toll on our well-being and our effectiveness, a concern shared by colleagues in medicine, occupational therapy, and nursing among other disciplines. But the term, “self-care” doesn’t sit well with me. It conjures a box to be checked, an appointment on the calendar, something that happens a few weeks a year or for an hour a day, too discrete, too time-limited. Maybe this term is more about a longing for a way of being, a way to stay moored when the waves, whether small swells that throw us off-balance like the one I experienced this morning, or overwhelming seismic sea waves, that occur because of deep ruptures– think Baton-Rouge, Dallas, Baltimore, Stanford, Orlando, Nice — threaten to capsize our sense of purpose and meaning.

Two days ago I saw a window decal that said, “no bad days.” There is something about that simple statement that has been working on me and is teaching me something about weathering and, better yet, thriving in the ever-pounding surf. Perhaps it is a kind of mantra that might encourage me to stay engaged with the suffering of the world, denounce its savage idiocy when I must, and still celebrate its beauty and joy. Individuals who have confronted life-threatening illness often seem to understand that there are truly “no bad days.” They seem to know that as long as we live and breathe and have the great good fortune to work to make the “earth as it is in heaven,” then there are really no bad days. There are moments we may regret, lives lost that we mourn, changes to make, causes to champion, and always work to do. There will also be moments to cherish, wonder to find, and love to give. No bad days? No bad days.

Wings of Desire

As we collectively process the latest carnage, a comment from my husband sums up the situation: “Now, it’s time for 8 weeks of anguished conversation. Then everything will stay exactly the same.” If my Facebook feed is any indication, he’s right; it is filled with anguish: “Prayers for Orlando,” “We are Orlando,” and “Enough Praying, Do Something.” With rare exceptions, these calls force us to a dichotomous choice: Side A. advocate for gun policy reform Side B. send your thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families. Camp A “politicizes tragedy” by asking politicians to do what they can to prevent future horrors. Camp B, the prayers, are labeled delusional and discounted. As we throw labels at one another the status quo is maintained.

So far, I’ve not responded. Not for a good reason but because I feel numb. I don’t feel shock or disbelief. The same script plays out with such freakish regularity that it’s no longer shocking. I don’t feel fear or worry for my family. If I did, how would I live? Stop working? Keep my children home from school? Move to Wyoming and live off the grid? Truthfully, I hardly generate a tear as I read the stories of children at Pulse texting their mothers before dying. I recognize these situations as horrible but with detachment now that we relive these awful scenarios almost every other month.

As a social worker, I recognize my numbness for what it is: a symptom, a way of coping with traumatizing experiences that are not going away and that I believe I am powerless to stop. I don’t like it and I tried to engage my older son to pull me out. He is into photography and I asked him if he wanted to attend a vigil in our town for the Orlando victims. I asked because I thought going would break through my numbness and I thought he’d like the idea of documenting the event. He said no telling me that he’d spent the day making a rock sculpture of “49 cairns” near our home. It was two hours before I realized the symbolism of what he’d done. That is numbness. How to break through it…

I’ve found myself thinking about the 1987 movie, “Wings of Desire.” Not the Nicolas Cage version, which I think, was called City of Angels, but rather the original, this one. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-wings-of-desire-1988. In it, angels watch and comfort from a distance but cannot intervene to change events in human lives. They stand beside and make sure no event goes without witness, but cannot articulate all that they see and know. Eventually, one of the angels longs to become human, give up his all-knowingness, give up his distance and remove, because he has fallen in love with someone who does not recognize her own beauty. The angel is willing to give up immortality to be able to love, to suffer, and in so doing to feel joy. Before I had seen the movie, the story I heard about it was a little bit different. In that version the angel wanted to become human because he thought he could do more good as a mere mortal than as a divine being. I was told as much once by a client and her words have stayed with me for years.

We were in my office off the emergency room. I don’t remember why. She was telling me about her difficulties as a parent and of her faith that God was with her and would take care of her. I was probably 23 years old and completely shocked by the abject poverty in which the people I worked with lived. As I listened, I struggled to find a hopeful word and truthfully wondered about the utility of her faith at that moment. But I did my best to be encouraging and to validate her statements. “Yes ma’am. Of course He will. I know you are right.” She stopped abruptly, seeing my doubt, and said, “He will help me but He needs your hands. Don’t you forget that…” That indictment was at least 25 years ago and, in my recent numbness, I had almost forgotten, forgotten the difference that raised voice, an anguished prayer, a call to a legislator, or a work of art can make. I had become like the angels in the movie, willing to bear witness but seeing myself as unable to do much else. But I’m no angel and neither are you. We are all too human – broken, suffering, mired in the mundane, and yet extraordinary. It is not worth giving up no matter how frustrating or hopeless we feel. We must be Orlando. We must pray for Orlando. We must change our laws to prevent such horror. We must do all of it.

Photo Credit:http://image.toutlecine.com/photos/a/i/l/ailes-du-desir-1987-02-g.jpg