Posts Tagged ‘courage’

This past Saturday was the day of our big agency fundraiser, Dare to Dream. I joke about it being the 9th time we were running an event that we meant to offer just once. I am asked each year to provide a “state of the agency” commentary to bring our donors up to speed on new and/or fun things that have happened in the past year since we last met. Our landscape for LGBT service provision has changed. Our expectations have changed. I’ve changed. Here’s why.

From Youth Outlook state of the agency, October 21, 2017:

I promised the board members I wouldn’t get sad and sappy while I was up here so let’s pick up where we left off last year. Last year at this event, four days after the election, we talked about community, hope, persistence and determination.

Eleven and a half months later, I can tell you that determination has only grown. I’d love to be able to say we’ve been unaffected by the changes but that wouldn’t be true. A few weeks ago, I even wrote an open letter to the Youth Outlook kids which you will hear in a few minutes. (https://urbantidepool.com/2017/10/05/an-open-letter-to-the-youth-outlook-youth/) While most of the responses to it were positive, one parent did tell me I was fear mongering and then told me I was living in a fantasy because the world has never been and will never be safe.

My first thought to that was –is it fear mongering when I tell you outright what I am afraid of or I repeat what kids have said they are afraid of? I’m not sure I understand your use of that word.

My next thought to that was Wow. We will always believe in safe space. I know what we’ve done in just this past year to create safe, brave space for kids who were struggling with assault, homelessness, rape, and thoughts of suicide.

It’s not like we’re wearing blinders. We know what we are up against. Any one of the staff team can quote Southern Poverty Law Center information that anti-LGBT hate crimes have increased across the country, moving us from the number 4 spot to the number 3 spot since November, outranked only by anti-Black and anti-immigration hate crimes. Anyone of them can tell you that according to GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Educators’ Network, we had seen national declines in verbal and physical harassment and sexual violence for several consecutive years, until 2015, when we saw an uptick in every one of those categories and we’re hearing stories that suggest we will probably see another increase in those stats when the 2017 report is released.

We know those things are out there. We’ve seen the Confederate flags flying in our neighborhoods and we’ve led conversations with our kids about white supremacy, privilege and violence.

You know what else is out there? One–A new, rural Youth Outlook drop in center. We put our heads together with a wonderful group of people from the Open Table United Church of Christ in Ottawa last spring and before I could blink twice, we had a drop in center running there that became the second biggest program that we offer.

So that’s out there.  Two– We’ve successfully launched about one new drop in center per year. In a big year, we’ve done two, but those are the exception. This year, we’re averaging about one new request per month to come into a different community and open a another site. The need is there and people are responding to it in ways we have not seen before.

Three–About a month ago, we called together the first meeting of the leadership of the countywide networks of professionals that work with LGBT kids. The network groups are responsible for planning professional development in each of their locations. We started with one in DuPage County, then added DeKalb, then Kane, then Suburban Cook created their own modeled after ours, and now three other counties are considering joining this effort to keep putting accurate, positive information about LGBT kids out into the conversation.

Four–Last June, Youth Outlook had the busiest Pride month we’ve had in the history of the agency, as more corporations than ever asked us to speak for their events. We said yes—to everything. It was Pride month. We weren’t going to do sad and sappy.

In the background of those requests, I took a Friday afternoon off to plant some flowers in my back yard. Some of you have heard me reference my neighbors. They are a rough crowd. So here I am spending my Friday afternoon playing in the dirt, one of my favorite things, and I can hear the neighbors on the other side of my fence. It’s Dyke this, Dyke that, and hey how much fun is it to park that dyke next door into her driveway so she can’t get out past the fire hydrant and the end of my truck?  Yuk, yuk, yuk.

This is, unfortunately, not anything new. I’ve been listening to these people for several years. What was new this year was that it didn’t stop there. I did what I always do—I channeled my inner Michelle Obama and when they went low, I went high. I tuned them out. I tuned them out until one of them approached the fence near where I was working, unzipped his fly and urinated on the fence so that it splashed through on me.

It took two days for it to fully register with me what had happened. I am 52 years old. I have a master’s degree and I run an agency that helps kids. And that man called me a dyke and peed on me. I have to wonder—if it took me at 52, with my social network and my professional status, two days to be able to start processing that event, what about the 12 year olds whose families do not know who they are and they can’t dare say it? How are they managing these situations without support?

Later that week, Carrie, Carolyn and I all had Pride presentations to do. We had an agency to talk about and kids in six counties to support. We can skip the sad and the sappy. But by all means, let’s talk about determination. Let’s talk about defiance and standing up for ourselves and for our kids.

Let’s talk about looking around at what’s going on and saying not just no, but HELL no? This might have gone over in 1998 when I started working here. But now? This is not going to fly. We will not stop talking about what helps LGBT young people feel safe. Part of that is acknowledging what makes them feel unsafe. We will not stop talking about it, no matter how many times I am told that we’re living in a fantasy because we’ve already been told too many times that Youth Outlook IS the only safe space that some kids experience.

I believe we are in for some giant challenges in the coming year. That’s an opportunity for us to step up or step off.

Ask any one of us about this topic, determination. Stepping up is the only option.

boulder

Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.   ~ Kahlil Gibran

Last fall, I took a plunge and brought a third dog into my house. I wasn’t puppy shopping at the time. I was really nervous about adding another set of paws to the 12 already living in my small home. The circumstances seemed right, though. Her family loved her and hated to let her go but they wanted a stable place for her. Her “mom” (my friend Lorrie) had died about 6 months prior and her “dad” (my friend John) needed to be able to travel for his job and wasn’t able to care for her.

We decided after numerous conversations that Kiara would become part of the herd here and with the friendship that had formed between her family and me, she could still see her people regularly. It was a great arrangement. She got to be in one place and her dad didn’t have to worry about kenneling her or finding her a dog sitter when he was out of town for work.

I can’t say it wasn’t a difficult start. During the first week that Ki moved in, her dad came over to see how she was adjusting. He had a glass of wine with me and she sat by his feet in this new, strange environment with its extra critters. The next day, every time I walked through the living room, I found her sitting beside the recliner where her dad had sat, with her chin on the armrest. It was so sweet and so loyal, it brought tears to my eyes.

Kiara spent the winter bonding with Chip and chasing the cat around the first floor, poking at him with one pointy paw when he’d let her get close. Mylo was a bit more reserved about having a newcomer and on the night of her arrival, took one look and promptly nipped her on the snout to let her know who was alpha. Kiara got the message. It was Mylo’s house. I don’t think Ki really cared all that much.

I’ve known before now that dogs have a sense of humor but I saw it surface in ways I hadn’t seen with other critters. Kiara played tricks on Chip. She would wait until all dog bowls had hit the floor filled with kibble with the little tablespoon of wet food on top to make it interesting. She’d wait just a bit longer until Chip was engrossed in his breakfast, then she’d run across the room at him, barking at the top of her canine lungs. Chip, rocket scientist that he is (how do I keep ending up with these super sweet, not too bright male dogs?), would fall over himself down the stairs toward the back door, bellowing his warning bark, then standing guard there against absolutely nothing, puffed up to about four times his normal size. He clearly didn’t know WHAT was happening, but SOMETHING was happening and he was going to stop it, by golly!  Kiara would casually swipe the wet dog food off the top of his bowl and go trotting back to her place in the dining room as if nothing had happened. Laughing. I KNEW she was laughing.

The best part of it for her –and maybe the funniest part—was that Chip fell for it not just once or twice. She pulled the Chip-alarm every day for weeks. I finally had to intervene and put a gate up so the poor guy could eat his kibble in peace, without being blown up into the unfortunate dog in the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. I could almost hear her saying to Seamus, “Hey, Cat, watch THIS!”

Kiara was the early riser in the family. She could be tempted to hit the snooze button once in a while if I loudly told her, “No bark!” but her response to that was to climb onto the end of the bed with her pointy legs, sigh, and fidget, while kicking me, until I got up. She had strong opinions about these things.

I think it is safe to say that this was one of the best decisions I ever made. She got it all. She got a house and a yard to romp in, and two new buddies to play with, and her dad could do his job and not have to worry about her and she got to see her other people frequently, which always brought happy sounds and a certain dance with those long, skinny legs. Last week, I needed someone to watch her for a few days so she went for the whole week with one of her people who loves her most in the world.

Kiara came home from her trip last Sunday, ready to romp with the other dogs and resume telling me what time to get up each morning. On Wednesday, we started our day as all days start—with a romp in the yard before kibble, then a walk to sniff around the street and see who’s doing what. We’d gotten only two houses away. She lagged behind to sniff the fire hydrant and the tree and I called her to step up the pace.

We didn’t get any further. Ki collapsed on the driveway, maybe 60 feet from our house. I heard it before I saw it. Bony dog elbows thumping concrete is unmistakable. It was quick. I don’t think she suffered. The vet said it was a sudden onset cardiac issue. There’s no warning, no sign of a problem, so the first time it makes itself known, it’s typically fatal.

My biggest regret is that when she collapsed, I was unable to lift her, to hold her, as she died. She’d gone to visit her person the week before because I had surgery on my shoulder and one week post-surgery, picking her up from a flat-out position on concrete was not a possibility.

I yelled for my neighbor to come help and he rushed outside to see what was wrong. His voice broke as he scooped her up and held her gently, telling her that she would be okay, to just hold on, that we were going to get her help. He talked to her the entire time we were driving to the vet office. “Hold on, baby. We’re almost there.”

She was gone before we arrived at the clinic. I’m not even sure that she was still with us when we got into the car. If she was, she died on his lap in my car. My neighbor, Scott, stood on the sidewalk of the vet hospital with me as we cried on each other’s shoulders and the techs carried her inside.

It is not lost on me that my friend Kiara got to spend a whole week with her person before she left us. Nor is it lost on me that her last morning consisted of a romp with Chip and Mylo, and kibble with her favorite wet food on top, and a walk with a fire hydrant and a tree to sniff. When time stopped for her, she was not alone. She was held and loved—some even by a man who didn’t know her well, but who treated her with the utmost kindness in her last moments.

It is difficult to lose a furry family member. But the focus of these last couple of days has been far more about what she gave us during her months with us and what her family and I were able to do for her to make her last year wonderful.

It is also not lost on me that in a scalding second of I NEED SOMETHING RIGHT NOW, my neighbor Scott appeared by my side and helped me escort that sweet pup across the Rainbow Bridge. I don’t know what he was in the middle of doing when I yelled for him. He dropped whatever it was, and he was right there for me, and for her, through the end.

No regrets otherwise. This is what I offered to do when I agreed to bring her home. In return, I got a year with a very cool, smart, funny dog. I shared her with a very cool, smart, funny family and we got to do something really special for her.

In her last moments, I got to see the absolute best of a person who opened his arms and his heart to help me do one final thing for her. There are times when kindness cannot be repaid. It can only be paid forward. I think this may be one of those times.

Happy trails, Kiara. The gate is open, sweet girl. Run as fast as you want!

Scott, I will never be able to thank you enough.

Kiara beds

 

November 2, 2016

Five years ago this afternoon, I was at a local middle school speaking about LGBT youth and their developmental process. Earlier in the day, I’d learned that a former intern, my very first intern at Youth Outlook—Brian– had died, only 24 hours after learning about the death of one of the drop-in center youth. I struggled with my decision to go do the presentation, regardless. I’d been crying on and off most of the day. My eyes were bloodshot, my concentration temporarily misplaced. I debated. Finally, I put on my big boi Executive Director pants…and I went with every intention of giving those faculty members a hell of a show.

Brene Brown tells us we grow in our vulnerable moments. Three decades ago, Gail Sheehy wrote about it in Passages–like crustaceans shedding old then forming new shells, we must go through times of vulnerability and risk our most sensitive selves if we are to grow.

Don’t you love it when the universe just messes with you?

Sigh. Fine! Okay. I’m going. Suit. Briefcase. Powerpoint. I looked the part—a consultant saying the same thing that in-house people were saying but it meant something different coming from me because I worked somewhere else. My delivery that afternoon was spot on for about 80 minutes. The end of the presentation was in sight. The attendees were talking to me. They were laughing. We were there.

That’s when it happened. In the final lap of the Powerpoint presentation, the last couple of days edged their way back in and edged my focus out. First, I lost my train of thought, and as always happens when I get distracted, I became acutely aware of the attendees’ attention and just how quiet it was in the room now that I had stopped speaking. I wanted to resume, but the only images I held in my mind were an empty chair at the drop-in center group left by a child’s death, followed quickly by a heartwarming smile and a sense of the gentle energy that Brian possessed. My throat constricted.

Oh. My. God. I could not cry here in the middle of a presentation. How unprofessional could I be? This was about to crash and burn. I tried to speak, tried to force the next sentence from a series of slides that I can almost do in my sleep these days. My voice first went high, then cracked, and I stopped.

The attendees waited. They may have been puzzled. They were certainly patient.

I couldn’t do it. Another sentence failed to launch. I could feel my panic growing, sure I was about to blow whatever reputation Youth Outlook had. I held my hand up to the person sitting closest to me and whispered, “Will you excuse me for just a moment?” She nodded.

Standing just on the other side of a divider wall, I yanked my glasses off and pressed fingertips to my eyes roughly. It probably took less than a minute to compose myself and then, feeling like an absolute failure, I stepped back into place at the front of the room. The attendees returned attention to me.

I had no idea what to do. Play it down? Ignore it completely?  I had never heard of Brene Brown at that point and Gail Sheehy couldn’t have been further from my memory. Still, I thought I should offer them a real reason.

“I’m sorry,” I said, making eye contact slowly around the room. “I wanted to come here and give you a good presentation and I thought I could pull it off. Youth Outlook has had two deaths in the last 24 hours and it caught up to me.”

I couldn’t have felt more exposed than if I’d handed over my ED suit and presented in my underroos. I didn’t wait for a response. I turned back to the slides and gave the last ten minutes my full attention. If Gail Sheehy was right, I was going to grow a new shell by the time we were finished, while hoping that the agency wouldn’t suffer any longterm setback.

Wrapping up the computer cord afterward, someone touched my arm and I looked up. It was one of the teachers who’d been sitting front row for the last 90 minutes.

“Thank you,” she said quietly. “This must have been so hard. Thank you for being with us.”

As she moved past, another teacher replaced her, with a similar message. Then another.

“Thank you.”

“Thank you for letting us know. I’m sorry.”

Lightning bolt. These folks weren’t judging me. They were empathizing. The expectation that I keep it together and not let on that anything was wrong was my own. Their reaction to the fact that two people associated with Youth Outlook had just died was to support, to understand, to hold space—even when the consultant carrying a message and a Powerpoint presentation is a crab moving around on the ocean floor without their gender neutral shell.

It was that choking moment that most of us have had nightmares about, standing in front of crowd of strangers, exposed. I had every intention of giving them a great professional that day. I don’t actually know WHAT I gave them that day, because I’m mostly aware of what they gave me. Permission. To grieve. To be honest. To be human in that sense of loss. To be connected.

Grief is hard work. Pain is exhausting. No matter, sometimes my job isn’t about being a flawless professional. Sometimes it’s much more about being a flawed human whose voice can break in the middle of a presentation. Am I a better professional if I don’t love enough to feel loss? I have come to think not. As difficult as some of the days have been, I prefer experiencing those events that make us burst out of our confining shells, defenseless and frightened beings just waiting our next shell to form. If we’re really lucky, we’re surrounded by strangers holding space in a middle school classroom who will take our hands, see our grief and pain, and thank us when it happens. Those days make us better people, better professionals, and let’s face it–better crabs.

lead_courageobevulnerable

I spent a few days on the Outer Banks last week, a gift from a friend who owns a vacation property in Nags Head. Beyond being just a fun place where you can show up pretty much anywhere as you are, the area holds a lot of sentimental value for me. It is the last place I spent a block of time with my brother –the Major, as I call him–before he was admitted to the transplant unit to wait for his new heart. It’s where we planned to return for our first fishing expedition when he got said new heart— one of those all day charters where we could catch fish as big as ourselves and spend hours wrestling it into the boat. I stood on the grounds of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on Thursday, feeling at once a curious combination of having come home to the candy-cane striped landmark and longing to go home to a place that ceased to exist when the Major didn’t survive long enough to receive his new heart.

That lighthouse survived. In fact, that lighthouse was relocated, in its entirety, so that it could.

Think about it. That whole structure was MOVED. All 208 feet of it.

In the summer of 1999, after about a decade of planning, engineers removed the front steps from the structure, ran tracks across the grounds, jacked up the lighthouse, and started the move along those tracks. Well, I’m sure it was more complicated than that, but not being an engineer, I’ll give you the tourist’s take on the move! It took 23 days to move the entire lighthouse 2900 feet in 5 foot increments, the tallest brick structure ever moved in history.

We all have them, you know. Lighthouses, I mean. Those structures in our lives that warn us of danger, warn of us of the Diamond Shoals just beyond the shoreline.  Don’t go beyond this point—this is not safe. Observing that rule keeps us safe…until just like in Cape Hatteras, the sand begins to erode, threatening to topple the structure and destroy what we’ve built our lives around. And then, just like in Cape Hatteras, ya gotta get your hands around that 5000-ton lighthouse and ya gotta move it.

My lighthouse was and is the writing of Urban Tidepool. When I started writing, in the summer of 2011, I told no one. Only my spouse knew I was putting some of my history into writing.  As I wrote, I was convinced that if I ever managed to get published, that I should never do that under my real name. I had a pen name all picked out. Fear drove the decision. My history could never be allowed to associate with the person I’ve become. Too much risk to my job…too much risk to my life.

Except for one thing. That’s my story. That IS what happened. Those things ARE what I saw and what I lived with.  They’re mine. If I take away any of those stories, would I be the same “me” that I am now? Those were not great experiences. Some of them were awful experiences.  But all of those combine to make me the “me” that I am, and most days, I like this me.

I went back to the drawing board on the pen name. Maybe I didn’t need one.

As I wrote, I often felt like I was slogging through emotional wet cement.  I wrote the chapters not in chronological order as I supposed most books were written. I wrote as memories came and pulled other memories up. I’d sit with my laptop, the scene running in my head, trying to capture the events and the words of what played out on those days so many years ago, and I’d be IN that scene. I’d be there.  I was sitting on the couch or the dining room table of my home, sobbing, and completely unaware that I was sobbing as I wrote what I remembered.  I dredged up things I hadn’t thought about in 40 years.

The engineers removed the stairs from the front of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

My usual routine was to write a chapter, tear it open, get it down, then read it to my spouse before I sent it out to my reading team. I’d read with a foot in both worlds, being here on my couch and there in 1979 or 1982, repeating the words that were said to me, or that I had said, reliving humiliation and injury and loss.

The engineers ran tracks across the ground.

When I began to tell a few more people that I was writing a memoir, a great number of them observed to me, “Oh, that must be so cathartic!”

Not exactly.

I’d walked around for more than twenty years believing that my career was merely a house of cards and as soon as people really knew who I was, really KNEW where I had come from, (really knew I hit that nun that one day), that my career would collapse. People would not wish to associate with someone who’d done such things.

The engineers jacked up the lighthouse.

It tore everything open, this writing. I came nose to nose with stories I’ve wanted not to think about since I was eight years old—not that I really WANTED to think about them back then. I came nose to nose with the things I could see now as an adult…pick up in my hands and turn all around and see…and think, “Wow, that was really f*cked up.” And I was going to put that out there for people to know about. Not because I think I have tons of answers for how we can all move forward through such circumstances (because I don’t) but to raise questions about how we can do better what we do for kids in our careers. My lighthouse was standing at the edge of the beach. Could telling my story offer anything to improve what social workers and teachers are trained to do? Could it generate conversation among other folks who are not social workers and teachers, but maybe do something else…like coach soccer on Saturday morning or tutor kids who need a little extra help in one area of their schooling?  I thought maybe it could. I kept writing.

Mother’s death. Family violence. Addiction. Animal torture. Father’s death. Homelessness. High risk behavior. Terror. Rage. Devastation. Friends. Connection. Hope.  Breaking open. Survival.

The engineers started to move an entire lighthouse along steel mats, 126 feet per day, in 5 foot increments.

I finished the first full draft in January 2013. In February 2014, more than a full year later, I met a friend for a Coke on a Saturday afternoon and, looking over the edge of the glass at her, I said, “I think I’m having a meltdown.”

She nodded and replied gently, “I’m not surprised that you’re having a meltdown after writing that. I’m only surprised it took you this long.”

I knew in the process of writing that my healing from what happened when I was a kid was still underway. I had put those stories away for a long time, believed in the lighthouse and never went past that point, and finally the shoreline was starting to erode.  I didn’t know that there would be a healing process then from writing about it or how it would affect the people around me as they navigate this process with me.  Sometimes ya gotta get your hands around that 5000-ton lighthouse and ya gotta move it.

It took 23 days and the engineers set the lighthouse down in its new location fully intact, safely away from the eroding shoreline.

It’s taking longer than 23 days to move my lighthouse. The engineers working with me are an admirable group of people with seemingly endless patience, just as deserving of an award as the engineers who moved the Cape Hatteras structure. Allowing my lighthouse to stand on an eroding beach wasn’t the best choice I could have made. Sometimes the only way to change that is to be jacked up, nudged to a new location and set down on a new foundation.

Lighthouses. We all have ‘em.

Cape Hatteras lighthouse_edited-1