Posts Tagged ‘healing’

A yahrzeit candle burns on my counter today, a gesture borrowed from my fabulous former spouse’s traditions and one to which I have gotten quite attached. Today is the 45th anniversary of the mother’s crossing. As I’ve aged, the tumult of this day has diminished and now it more likely and more often leaves me reflective, cresting gently over waves of questions for which I have no answers.

What little memory I retain of her is captured in Urban Tidepool. It is comparatively short, bittersweet, and shadowed by tremendous loss about which it almost never felt appropriate to speak. As a young person, I became acutely aware of how answering any question about her could bring a conversation to a standstill. Some families don’t discuss death easily. Some families and other folks struggle even harder to discuss the loss of a parent with a young child, to help it make sense (don’t worry, it doesn’t), to offer some kind of comfort. Kids pick up those cues sometimes easier than adults think they do, especially the sensitive kids. We understand that it makes conversation easier if we simply don’t speak of those topics, so adults don’t find themselves scrambling for what to say and fearful that they’re about to put their foot in their mouth. Not wanting to create that awkwardness, wanting to protect remaining parents and other people around us, we learn quickly not to bring it up.

Traveling that path myself in the years following, I found the sudden stall of a discussion painful. I found the expression—THAT LOOK—on some grown up’s face unbearable. It does not occur to a seven year old brain that you, yourself, have not caused that stall or that look. Both the stall and the look are byproducts of the fact that we simply don’t discuss death easily.

I am glad to see that some schools have moved away from the practice of “Make this card for your mother for Mother’s Day”. For the first couple of years after her death, my teachers would dutifully do the art class on the Friday before Mother’s Day and deliver that directive.  I would sit there, clutching my crayons like prayer beads, staring at blank construction paper.

“Draw a picture of you and your mom doing something you like to do together.”

My wheels would turn.  Was that based on how the mother could move around before she got sick and the doctors taped her insides to her outsides and she couldn’t really do much? Sometimes it was hard to hug her. If I hugged too tight or at the wrong angle, I encountered a rubbery bag attached to her stomach at just about the level of my head and we all knew right from the moment her insides got taped to her outsides that we had to be super careful how we touched her so we didn’t hurt her or tear the rubbery belly-wanna-be off. Should I draw a picture of trying to hug her? How would I draw a picture of that THING, whatever it was?

Eventually, each teacher realized that I was sitting there like a deer in headlights and offered this suggestion, in an effort to be helpful. “Make a card for someone you think of like a mother”. Usually there were a couple of sidelong glances from other kids sitting nearby—I was the only freak who didn’t have a mother.

That early, I was a pretty decent rule follower even though I was a terrible artist, so I complied, and drew something with a vaguely female stick figure and a shorter, gender non-specific kid, and put some check mark birds in the sky and a big sun, and usually a flower or two.  I don’t remember that I ever identified who the “someone you think of like a mother” was.  Other kids took their check mark birds and stick people home and usually taped to them to the front of their stick-figure refrigerators. Mine usually went in the trash as soon as I was out of line of vision of the teacher.  You cannot patch the bleeding mother wound by making a card for someone else on Mother’s Day and it was torment to be expected to do so.

One of the most difficult things as I aged is that I have almost no independent memory of what she looked like. I can bring up images of her face, yes, but they’re images that I also have on film in an old box somewhere.  It’s not the same as being able to remember her face on my own.

Several years ago, I watched a great Mitch Albom movie called For One More Day. If you haven’t seen it, the premise is that a man has a car accident while on his way to kill himself and in the space where he exists while waiting for the paramedics, he lives an entire day with his mother who had died years prior. I loved it. When the movie ended and I was getting ready for bed, I observed, “Wouldn’t it be weird if that happened? I mean, it’s been so long, I’m not sure I’d recognize her if I got to see her again.”

My dream that night started out in one of my favorite locations—I was in a library. There was a man there with me. I knew the man just well enough to feel comfortable with him and chat.  He asked me if I would go somewhere with him and it was easy to agree, feeling that comfortable. We traveled. It was not a linear travel where we progressed from the library to our next location, but more of a whirring, things-got-blurry and then we’re at our destination kind of travel that dreams are good for.

Our destination was the house I grew up in, where I have not lived for 35 years. It looked exactly as it did when I was a kid, and not as it does now, having driven by it a few summers ago. My travel companion and I stepped inside without knocking. No need to knock. We were going home. We crossed the enclosed porch and stepped into the living room, through the heavy, varnished oak interior door that still had Venetian blinds with maroon webbing covering the single window. Up one step. At that point, my travel companion nudged me to go further and he was going to stay in the doorway.

I took another step into the room. Straight ahead of me, past the furniture that wouldn’t have been there anymore, stood both parents on the opposite side of the dining room table. I noticed it was the old dining room table, the one we had in the house when the mother was still alive, not the one we replaced it with when I was in the sixth grade.  The father stood in front of the picture window that overlooked the concrete pad that passed for a backyard in our neighborhood. The mother stepped away from him and came right up to the edge of the table on her side.

Ignoring my travel companion, I approached the table from my side of the room, keeping it squarely between the mother and me. At the time of this dream, she would have been gone probably 37 or 38 years. The father would have been gone 27 or 28 years. She stood for a moment, then leaned down and rested on her elbows on the tabletop, never breaking eye contact with me.

I had forgotten that movement. She used it when her back hurt, leaning over to take the weight off her spine. I hadn’t thought about the simple position and the tilt of her head and the way her one hip raised when she bent down because of her scoliosis for probably three decades.

Neither one of us moved. Neither one of us spoke. Our eyes locked and I could see every line of her face. I saw and remembered a little mole. She didn’t have to say anything. Just staring at her face, seeing her eyes…she had beautiful eyes…I felt a rush of warmth like I have never experienced. So loved. So known. So THERE.

When I woke, I thought I might lose the dream, as some of them do have a tendency to get fuzzy and fade away the next day. That hasn’t been the case. I’ve retained this dream in detail for years. I retain the image in detail and I fear less that I wouldn’t know her if I, like Mitch Albom’s character Chick Benetto, got a chance to spend another day with her.

There are still questions, as I said. I would have liked to get to know her as a person. Parents aren’t really people when a kid is 7. I would have liked for her to get to know me as a person. I would have liked to create memories, not live through a lifetime with only memories.

I wonder if we’d have been able to hang out after dinner sometimes and have coffee. But not that nasty instant stuff. Yuck.

I wonder if I could have stopped by and visited with my dogs.

I wonder if she would have liked if I cooked for her and brought her stuff from my garden.

I wonder if she would have emailed.

I wonder if I could have told her about my job and the amazing kids I work with and the incredible staff people I’m surrounded by and if she would have known how lucky I feel that this has been my path without her.

I wonder if she noticed when I threw those drawings away in the early days.

Sometimes I wonder if she would know me after all of these years—the days of being a skinny 7 year old with perfect vision are almost a half century behind me. At those moments, I take out the dream and I revisit our old house in South Philly and I look into her eyes and at every line on her face. I crest even more gently over this question because now, down to the bottoms of my socks, I do know the answer to that.

 

An excerpt from Urban Tidepool:

Now she sat up, drawn and bony, but alert. She looked at me with an expression I didn’t understand. “Do you want a Lifesaver? They’re in the drawer there.”

I found tangerine Lifesavers in the nightstand drawer and unstuck one from its litter mates. It hadn’t even fully dissolved and suddenly it was time to go. I wanted to hug her, wanted her to hug me. There were bars in the way, and beyond the bars, tubes and wires connected to big, beeping machines.

My “Bye, Mommy,” was soft, carried on a wave of tangerine Lifesaver.

“Bye, baby. I love you,” again with the expression I didn’t understand.

We returned to the routine of news over the phone or what the father brought home after a visit. Chick and his family left for Virginia. I missed the mother so much there weren’t words for it. I could probably count on one hand the number of nights I hadn’t slept with her in the past couple years. The bed was big and there was no one on the sheepskin mat to call me Grasshopper at the end of Kung Fu or hold my hand while we watched Twilight Zone.

My cousin David and I scraped up enough coins, literally overturning couch cushions to find them, to buy a packet of flower seeds at the corner store. We scratched at the compacted dirt in what passed for a garden in front of our house—an ugly dirt square surrounded by an uglier hedge—gouging out the shape of the letters in her name. When she finally came home, there would be flowers blooming in the shape of her name. Anne. It was my name too, but everyone called me Nancy. We dumped hundreds of tiny seeds into tracks we made with a table spoon and pushed spoonfuls of dirt on top of them. We didn’t know to water them.

… Who knows what was said for the service or even the eulogy? I huddled against Pat and focused on not crying. (Just don’t cry. Just don’t cry.) Bye, Mommy. (“Do you want a Lifesaver? They’re in that drawer.”) I stared at the casket, set in the center aisle, covered with flowers and the singularly absurd thought struck me that I’d never see her again. We had said good bye.

A few rogue tears escaped. Nauseated and fighting tunnel vision, I followed the casket back out of the church when it was over, Pat holding my hand again. On the periphery, my classmates stood like fun-house mirror shapes, still staring. (Just don’t cry. Just don’t cry.) I couldn’t look back. How could they not stare? How could they comprehend this? How could any of us? (“Bye, baby. I love you.”)

Bye, Mommy.

 mom-holding-kids-hand-1024x656

A chapter from Urban Tidepool

2008

I wasn’t looking for a new site to set up another drop-in center. I already had enough to do without adding one more program. But when I was asked to apply for a foundation grant that would allow us to do just that and hire a program manager, I couldn’t get the paperwork submitted fast enough.

It was when the new Geneva site opened that we all met Michael Fairbanks, a sophomore from St. Charles. One meeting with Michael was all it took to know that he would advance through our youth leadership program without breaking a sweat. Already involved with his school’s Gay Straight Alliance, active in community theater and taking a list of AP classes, he shared his plan to go to law school to become a corporate lawyer to work on inclusion policies for Fortune 500 companies. Michael invited all of his friends to attend the new Geneva drop-in center, bringing new kids with him almost every week. The energy he put into the drop-in center reminded me of working with Blake a few years earlier. He would make this place his own, as Blake had done.

“Michael, there’s a house party that some of our donors are holding for us, and I’d like you to join me to talk about the drop-in center and what’s going on at your school. Interested?”

He nodded. “Can I tell them about the anti-bullying training I’ve been working on and the panel presentation?”

“That’s perfect. Plan on it.”

When Michael took the floor at the party, the lights glinting off his glasses, and started to describe being bullied in his locker room, silence descended on the group. It is so striking that so many adults who grew up being bullied think that our kids are not experiencing similar situations, as if being bullied somehow stopped after the Stonewall movement. Then they hear stories like Michael’s and realize the world hasn’t changed all that much.

“I had to go to my principal and he took me out of gym,” Michael explained. “It wasn’t safe for me to be there. Because of that, we started planning some training with the faculty at their meetings. I did a presentation on gay students’ right to have a safe environment. No one is talking to the teachers about this.”

 

2009

Michael kicked off his junior year with a bang. He served as president of his GSA and president of his French club, balancing his commitments against his youth leadership role with Youth Outlook. We honored Michael at the October gala, presenting him with the first youth leadership award. As an agency, we decided to begin offering that award based on our experience since last year and Michael’s performance as a youth leader. At one end of the room stood several pieces of artwork he submitted for the silent auction. At the other end of the room, a PowerPoint presentation ran, highlighting Michael’s contributions to the agency and noting his semi-finalist’s award for the national GLSEN award for student advocacy on behalf of LGBT high school students.

 

2010

“I wrote a letter to Oprah!” Michael announced.

I looked up, startled. “What for?” I asked.

“For Youth Outlook!” he said proudly. He pulled a folded sheet of paper from his backpack and handed it to me.

I thought he might be joking until I opened it and it started, “Dear Oprah Winfrey.” I scanned the letter. It explained what Youth Outlook was, who Michael was, and why he thought it was important for Oprah to be supportive of Youth Outlook. It was polite, it was genuine, and it brought tears to my eyes. “Did you send this to her?”

“I sent it to the newspaper. It’s an open letter.”

“An open letter!”

Basically, he dared one of the most revered celebrities in the history of television to get to know us. I looked at the letter again. His reasoning was solid. He pointed out that while things were changing, things were still difficult and dangerous and places like Youth Outlook were saving the lives of gay teenagers. He was right. It seemed like something she would talk about on her show.

Michael grinned. “I thought she’d pay attention more.”

 

09 June 2010

Oprah Winfrey

Harpo Studios, Inc.
1058 West Washington Blvd.
Chicago, IL 60607

Dear Ms.Winfrey;

My name is Michael Fairbanks. I am 16 years old and I will be a junior at St. Charles East High School in the Fall of 2010; in St. Charles, Illinois. I am the President of my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and French club; I am the Executive Director of the Gay-Straight Alliance of St. Charles, IL; I am a member of the French National Honors Society, and I am involved in my school’s music department. I am in the Chorale, Vocal Jazz Ensemble and the Chamber orchestra; the most advanced choirs and orchestra in my school. I am an openly gay young man, and as you may know, anything pertaining to GLBTIQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer/Questioning) issues does not go over well in today’s society.

Ever since I have been in middle school, I have always been bullied and harassed due to my sexual orientation. Up until this current school year, the harassment was over the roof; mainly taking place during my physical education class. I have been called a “faggot,” “fag,” “homo,” the “gay boy,” “queer,” and many more. Not only have I been called these very mean and offensive names, but I have also received threats, just because I am gay. This was causing me a lot of stress. It would cause me so much stress that at points I didn’t even want to go to school. Over the summer of 2009, my mother and I met with my school’s administration to talk about making my school a safer place for myself, and students alike. We decided that the best and most safe way for me to get away from the bullying and harassment would to get a doctors note, and have a medical excuse. Currently, I continue making my school a safer place for all students regardless of one’s sexual orientation, or gender identity/expression. I worked with my school’s administration to edit our districts policy on bullying and harassment, by adding “sexual orientation, and gender.” Those terms will be added to the handbook for the 2010-2011 school year. I have also been working on a sign that I have created called the “St. Charles East GLBTIQ Safe Zone,” and I have already spoken at a lead teachers meeting discussing how important it is that teachers are always showing support for the students, and that the students know they can trust their teachers to have a safe classroom and someone to talk to. At the Lead teachers meeting I also talked about dealing with diversity, specifically towards the GLBTIQ community. In the fall, I plan to speak to the entire administration to address the importance of the sign. I am also on the Suicide Prevention/Awareness panel that was presented March 25. I spoke about the risk factors of the GLBTIQ community and how they are four times more likely to attempt/commit suicide than the straight community. The panel was presented in front of a live audience and was also broadcasted through every TV in the school. On July 9, 2010, the Gay-Straight Alliance of St. Charles will be hosting a GLBTIQ”Unity Day,” a day that I created for the community to celebrate diversity in the GLBTIQ community.

Outside of School, I am a youth leader, and the president of the youth advisory board for the non-profit organization, Youth Outlook. Youth Outlook is the reason I am writing you this letter. Youth Outlook is committed to providing a safe, supportive, and respectful environment for adolescents, whether they identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or queer/questioning (GLBTIQ). It is also the only agency in the DuPage, Kane, and DeKalb counties of Illinois dedicated to solely serving GLBTIQ youth. All drop-in centers are open between 6:30-9:00 p.m.. There is group on Monday (DeKalb), Tuesday (Naperville), and Thursday (Geneva and Aurora) of every week. The DeKalb and Geneva groups serve youth who are 14 through 18 years old, or until they graduate high school. The Naperville and Aurora groups serve young adults ages 16 through 20. Youth Outlook provides leadership development, a social space, and wellness education on a variety of different subjects. Some of the subjects include, but not limited to; GLBTIQ issues (Harassment/Assault, Bisexualty/Biphobia, Coming out, Homophobia/Heterosexism, GLBTIQ Culture and History, and Transgender Issues), Health (Anxiety or depression, Drugs/Alcohol, STI Prevention/Treatment, sexual assault, self-esteem, and sex and sexuality), Relationships (Abusive relationships, boundaries, conflict resolution, dating issues, family issues, and negotiation skills), and other miscellaneous social activities. Youth Outlook is what I look forward to every week. When I go to the drop-in centers, the volunteers and staff members are always fun to be around, and I always know I can trust them. I have attended all the drop-in centers (Geneva, DeKalb, Naperville, and Aurora) and I enjoy them all! Recently, in the end of January 2010, Youth Outlook had to let go of their program manager, who was very loved by all the youth and myself, because Youth Outlook lost the funding for his position. Youth Outlook is facing many financial problems right now, and we really need your help. All the money donated goes to the organization, which goes to the youth. Without any money Youth Outlook would not be able to afford certain programs and activities, and Youth Outlook, if it doesn’t have enough money, might not be able to run anymore. I don’t know what I would be able to do without my weekly Youth Outlook. And that is why we need your help. Any amount of donation would be great, and any check should be made out to “Youth Outlook.” Youth Outlook is Youth Transforming the Future.

Thank you for your time, and if you have any questions and/or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Michael D. Fairbanks

 

2013

I booted up my computer and sat back to wait. The dinosaur would take at least twenty minutes before it was ready to work. I opened my calendar and punched the message button on my desk phone to retrieve the waiting messages, scribbling phone numbers down to return calls.

“Hi, Nancy, this is Ashley Rhodebeck from the Kane County Chronicle. I’m calling to get your input on a story I’m doing on the death of Michael Fairbanks.”

What?

 I snapped upright, hands flat on the desktop. Michael? No, that couldn’t be right. Michael?! No! I reached for the phone, then dropped it. As soon as my computer cooperated, I logged on and immediately did a search for Michael’s name. Nothing.

I opened a new tab and launched Facebook. I’d been Facebook friends with Michael’s mother since 2009, when we’d honored him at Dare to Dream. On her page, I read the chilling words that confirmed the reporter’s statement. Michael had died the night before.

My cell phone rang. I snatched it up with shaking hands, thinking I needed to call the Youth Leadership Coordinator before she heard this news in the heartless way I had. I didn’t even say hello.

“Tony, I just got some awful news—can I call you back in a few minutes?”

Tony’s voice cracked. “About Michael.”

I stilled. “You know?”

“One of the kids that used to come to group with him all the time sent me a message.”

He wouldn’t kill himself…He wouldn’t. Not Michael.

 

He didn’t. Michael’s death was accidental.

When I think about what we, as a staff, as an agency, as a community, have lost, I don’t know if it helps at all that it was an accident. It didn’t stop my tears when one of his friends approached his casket and sang “Amazing Grace” to him a capella at his funeral service. He gave everyone around him permission to be exactly who they are, and he wanted nothing more than to be loved for exactly who he was. Michael changed lives, and we are all cheated by this loss. In my heart, Michael will always be sixteen, challenging his school administrators to keep LGBT kids safe and writing to Oprah to ask her to help, this superhero boy whose talents we will never fully know.

I wish Oprah had responded. I think she would have loved Michael.

Michael, Nando, Denise

 

 

 

 

There is no time of the year that I am as aware of my shortage of family of origin as I am at the holidays. This is what some of us were raised with, right? Holidays are about family. Old songs extoll traveling long miles over snowy roads to be with family for that special holiday dinner and go to great lengths to depict our innate drive to avoid going back out on those snowy roads and sit with the love of our lives in front of a roaring fire.  Churches plan elaborate services at different times to celebrate with congregation members. This is the message repeated through the years. This is how we handle holidays.

This expectation has evolved a bit since my coming out days. At that time, family of choice was key. It had to be. Many of us had been thrown out of our homes, cut off from the families that brought us into the world. We survived by creating other family structures of mentors and dear friends, those people who could and would nurture us, gentle us, soothe the scorching loss so many of us experienced while parents and siblings wrestled with their own demons related to our orientation or gender identity.

Evolved, yes, but certainly not gone. And unfortunately, seeming to ramp up in ways I haven’t seen in twenty years, making me question what our new generation of young queerlings will do to build in their own structures of support.

In terms of my own structure of support, I’ve said numerous times over the past few years that I “family” differently than most people. I have found that a lot of folks don’t quite understand what that means.  Sadly, I’ve also found that a lot of folks whom I thought would understand because they’d come to know me well actually had no idea what it meant. That may end up being a post on another day.

I sat with a copy of Urban Tidepool on the table between a friend and myself this week and observed it again. “I family differently than most people.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

I tapped the cover of the coil bound book. “I don’t think it is possible to have these experiences and go on to family in a typical sense.”  I poked at the small child figure in the graphic.  “Look at this. I was this big when my mother died. Like…two inches tall.”  I held my fingers two inches apart in front of my eye for emphasis and peeked at her between them.  “Speaking developmentally, because you know I love all that developmental stuff, it’s not possible that THAT person could understand the changes that were about to happen and what it would mean to how I relate to family.”

She nodded, taking my point. “No, a kid that young isn’t able to do that.”

“All that kid is capable of is missing their mommy.”

There. I’d said it.  I’ve never put it into that context. Even when I wrote the chapters about the mother’s death and the three ring circus that followed, I’ve never spoken in plain words about being that kid, especially being that kid who missed their mommy. As a family, we never acknowledged it to each other that I recall. The game plan was always to keep acting as if everything was fine.

I’ve known for decades that things were not really fine. How could they have been?  I’m aware of the void left by her death, and then his, and the gap that exists where most people have parents, even many people my own age (which is sometimes a surprise to me that people my age still have parents).  As I have aged, the gap has worn larger, what memories I do have have softened and blurred until eventually I realized I have difficulty producing an independent image of her. There is longing….the gap DID have someone standing in it at one time…but the longing is now associated with gap rather than with image.  It is an odd combination, this longing for a person I barely remember, one that leaves me less enthusiastic about holidays than the average bear. The dread of Christmas begins to build immediately after Thanksgiving. It is a dark, foot-dragging time that peaks on Christmas Eve when I am so miserable I am unfit for human companionship and breaks about 2 pm Christmas afternoon, when I realize it’s done for another year and I can just go about my life again without the intense pressure, without the constant reminder that holiday time is coming and here are the things other people are doing with their families.

In 1973, getting through the first Christmas after the mother’s loss was nothing short of surreal. In the days before Christmas, it felt like we were moving through some Twilight Zone universe, going through motions that we’d always done, but we were hollow. It was supposed to be the most joyful time of year—at least that’s what all the old songs told us.

Over the years, I’ve figured out how to manage the obligation of Christmas joy that I don’t feel without bringing down everyone around me. I keep things low key to soothe that two-inch tall, gender neutral kid who feels like they’re living through a Twilight Zone episode. This year, I will call my sister, and then the day will probably include Die Hard movies, Gremlins, and maybe some Harry Potter and popcorn.  Well, maybe some Harry Potter. Definitely some popcorn.

As an aside, is anyone else intrigued by the fact that the only two Christmas movies that speak to me are called Die Hard and Gremlins? I’m sure that can’t be coincidence!

Anyway…that gap does soften and blur memory of people but I haven’t found that it actually does anything to soothe the memory of being without them. That’s a curious thing to me.

An excerpt from Urban Tidepool, Downward Spiral:

On a dreary mid-December afternoon, Michael and I cleaned the living and dining room and dragged the Christmas decorations out of the old storage trunk in the cellar. The nativity scene with the clay figures that the mother had painted and glued into place was stationed at its post on top of the TV that I polished with lemon Pledge.  We tried to hang things where the mother would have put them. We went through a mountain of tape sticking things to the front windows, now streaked with half-circles precisely the length of my arms, like the mother would have done. Well, maybe she wouldn’t have left so many streaks, but I was proud of the way I hung backwards out the window ten feet above the ground to get the outside clean. Across the street in Mr. Aubrey’s cellar window, his annual miniature train scene whirred on tiny tracks through a festive tiny village, weaving from one pane to the next, then back again. Almost every house on the street blinked shades of red and green. Some things were the same. But nothing was the same.

 We all have some gaps. We will all reach those points where some things are the same but nothing will ever be the same again. It is a normal part of aging and families growing and changing. My goal this year is to be gentle with that gap and see if I can get through Christmas Eve while still being fit for human companionship. It will be a first for me. Just consider me the Un-Spirit of Christmas.  If you’re around the neighborhood, Die Hard starts at 2 and the popcorn will be on and I’ll be hanging out with the dogs and my gap. Maybe I’ll even put the old manger out. Dress code, comfy. Bring your own gaps if you wish. We’ll be gentle with all of them.

Whatever your holiday, whatever your traditions, whatever your holiday traditions, may you celebrate in peace and kindness and may the people whom you love light up your path for our coming new year.

manger

 

 

 

 

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”    ~Maya Angelou

I’ve done a lot of reading and attended some trainings over this winter on the topic of trauma and trauma informed care and here’s what I have learned so far. When someone is in the middle of a meltdown, the thinking part of their brain stops working. No lie. The science is there. Kids, teenagers, all of us. It just stops. Decision making skills? Out the window. Language? Gone. Nothing above the brain mid-line is in gear–only the parts that can feel and act—or react.

This new learning caused me to notice the questions that we ask of people at those times. I’ve done it in my job over the years. “How can I help you?” ‘What do you need?” The questions are innocent, an outpouring of our desire to support and assist people we care about. They can’t engage in those questions with us, though. Their brain has turned off. They can’t answer a question like “What do you need” when they can’t access the upper part of their brain where language lives. We are asking them to do something with us that they are literally unable to do.

I am reminded of a Ram Dass book one of my graduate school instructors shared with us that talked about the helplessness of the helping professional. That book was written before we even knew any of the neuroscience that is driving our understanding today. Back then, it just resonated with me that sometimes the most important thing you could do with someone in crisis was to honor them by witnessing their pain. Just be with them. I have carried that message throughout my career.

Working with LGBT youth, sometimes the most important thing we can do is to honor them by witnessing their pain. We, as the agency staff, have no access to their family home. We have limited access to their school, and then only by invitation. We meet kids in tremendous pain who are being verbally and physically harassed, assaulted, threatened…kids are dealing with trauma on a frequent basis.

Neuroscience is also telling us now that people who experience trauma in childhood (abuse, neglect, parental mental illness or addiction, sexual assault, witnessing domestic violence, natural disasters, and a few others) develop cognitively in a different way than do people who do not experience trauma. The more trauma, the more different the brain and the more likely for health and mental implications in adulthood. The science is fascinating. Take a look at a quick, easy and interesting overview by Dr. Nadine Harris Burke. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95ovIJ3dsNk&t=577s

I wouldn’t have to scan the brains of some of the LGBT kids we work with to know that there are some differences in development going on there. We know there’s been an uptick in harassment and assault in the last couple of years (https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/GLSEN%202015%20National%20School%20Climate%20Survey%20%28NSCS%29%20-%20Executive%20Summary.pdf). We know there’s been, at best, benign neglect of their needs, and, at worst, open hostility toward LGBT students, especially trans students.  We also already know that LGBT youth make up between 20% and 40% of the kids who are homeless and on the streets every year, particularly high on the T, most particularly on trans youth of color. Newer research tells us that LGBT kids also comprise about 20% of youth who are incarcerated.  (Should we place bets on how many of those kids were homeless before they were locked up?)

Those are some mindblowing stats when you take into account that we make up…what….maybe 10% of the general population? Conservative stats say 5%, but let’s be generous and say 10% for the hell of it.

Now let’s add one more twist. Where’s my bugle? This information should come with a bugle blaring to announce its arrival. According to Dr. Caitlin Ryan, researcher at The Family Acceptance Project, and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the leading trauma experts in the world, all is takes is one person.

You read that right. All it takes is ONE person who hears, one person who witnesses, one person who honors and believes to begin to relieve some of the effect of that trauma. That’s one school counselor. One school nurse. One social worker in individual session. One mom. One brother. One neighbor. One volunteer at Youth Outlook or Big Brother/Big Sister. One person who is safe and trustworthy and respectful can provide an opportunity for rewiring a brain that has been traumatized. One person can be the protective factor that stops a desperate kid from making an attempt on their own life.

Wow. Think about the power you have to affect a kid’s life. Not just their life right now, but if you listened to Dr. Burke’s TED talk, you know it’s the power to affect a kid’s life throughout the life span. It’s not about the question at that moment of crisis: “What do you need?”  or “How can I help?” Remember, in meltdown mode, none of us can actually process that question.

Thirty years into this, although I see what Ram Dass meant, I don’t know that I would limit my description of this as helplessness when we watch someone hurt. It has honor. It has meaning. True enough, we may not be able to stop it from happening, but being there with someone while he/she/they hurt, holding space for them to have their experience safely, has the potential to change cognitive wiring. We can get to those pesky questions later. First, we just have to be. We are amazing critters—both what we are as individuals and what we have the ability to do for one another.

Yes, Dr. Angelou. I agree. When we know better, we do better.

Childhood Trauma Family Courts - 2015

I met one of my favorite people when she was just finishing up chemo for breast cancer. She was interested in volunteering at the agency where I work, and we met to talk about the jobs that volunteers were doing and the time commitment that might be involved.

I’ve mentioned this before in other blog posts. Some people throw light. It’s a warm, peaceful feeling to be in the presence of that light. My new friend Lorrie threw light like that. She led with it. I noticed it the first time we sat together over coffee, talking about LGBT kids. She was magnetic.

When she asked if it would make a difference to the kids that she came to a drop-in center wearing a headscarf, I told her I thought the kids would place more value on the fact that she was showing up to be supportive of them—they were not likely to judge the fact that she’d lost her hair to chemo. She took her scarf off then and the fact that she’d lost her hair dimmed when compared to the animation and luminosity in her eyes.

Lorrie decided she would sit through our volunteer training, a process that requires 24 hours over three Saturdays. It’s a big time demand. While I hope that folks who attend will learn something from the staff or the youth leaders or me, it was during that training that I learned that ANY statement coming from Lorrie starting with, “Oh, Nancy!” meant that filters were off and there was no predicting what I was about to hear.

On the third day of training, I’d left a basket of fidget toys out for the attendees to hand around. It was the usual training fidget toys—stress balls, Play Doh, stuffed bears, Nerf balls, etc. Lorrie set the tone for the next several years of our friendship at that moment.

“Oh Nancy!”

I looked up from a pile of handouts I was organizing on the front table, as a stress ball made its way down the line of new recruits and landed at Lorrie’s seat. She had the ball in one hand and the most incredible twinkle in her eyes that I’d ever seen.

“Nancy!” she repeated.  “This feels just like my new boobs will feel!” She immediately turned to the man next to her and extended the stress ball, laughing. “Here! Feel this!”

I was momentarily speechless, then washed over with a wave of her light and an irresistible urge to giggle. The man who sat next to her looked surprised (although by Day 3, it’s hard to say why either of us would have been) and declined, but he started to giggle too. Then the person on the other side of her started. Then the rest of the attendees joined in.

It occurred to me that we were laughing, however briefly, in the face of cancer.

Maybe chemo should come with capes, not headscarves. I learned a lot about life force and joy from a superhero who kicked cancer’s ass twice in the time that I knew her. During the third bout, when chemo stole her hair again, she shaved her head and sent me a selfie, commenting that she thought it appropriate to share, since this was where she was when I met her, too. Like that years ago night over coffee, it is not her uncovered head that stands out in the photo. It is her eyes—bright and mischievous and daring. She was laughing, irrepressible.  It is truly Lorrie, open, vulnerable, ready for a challenge, unbeatable. Of all of the photos I keep of my friends, it’s probably the most beautiful photo I have.

She brought incomparable gifts to my job and to my life. I wrote about the impact she had on our youth group members when we honored her at the agency gala a few years ago. Over coffee at Caribou, over pizza at Lou Malnati’s, during staff meetings and retreats, from hammering out details of a grant that funded her position through me pestering her for program reports and curriculum details, to developing our pilot program for first- and second-graders, to a serendipitous vacation when we both ended up in Paris, she was a creative force. She was one of my go-to people at first, someone whose input I trusted and whose expertise in her field gave her unique perspective on our new projects. In time, she was simply my friend, one of very few people who knew how writing Urban Tidepool had affected me and with what I was struggling, including processing my pending divorce and the fall out of the people I thought of as my friends.

Lorrie Paris

We lost Lorrie just a little over a year ago. Today is her birthday. It has been an odd year of our Youth Outlook team grieving, of kids and former kids grieving, of our book group grieving, of individuals noting softly in non-sequitur, “I miss Lorrie…”  while we engaged in the day to day activities of which she used to be a part. It has been a year of making space for the folks who needed to say, “I miss Lorrie…” and then coming home and crying alone in my garden or on a walk with one of the dogs because I miss Lorrie too.

The program she developed is going strong. The “talking ball” that she would take home from time to time to wash and return is still in the fidget basket. The stress ball that started years of laughter may still be in the bottom of that basket, too. In staff meetings and trainings, we still refer to “Lorrie nights”. I can’t walk into Lou Malnati’s or pick up coffee from Caribou without thinking about her. Maybe she actually kicked cancer’s ass a third time, because she’s certainly still with us, throwing light and prompting giggles with irreverent comments.

 

If you work in social services, you know how it goes—if it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.  This happened. So I’m documenting it. I met a superhero who was having chemo. She was irreverent and sarcastic and funny as hell. And bald. She was my friend. She was my person. I watched her change people’s lives. Sometimes I got to help. Other times, I just bugged her for paperwork about it. She kicked cancer’s ass twice and left a legend. She really should have had a cape.

I will tell you clearly and not as a non-sequitur. I miss Lorrie.

Happy birthday, my friend.

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We All Win

Posted: February 12, 2017 in Blog
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’m not much of a morning person. There may have been hypothetical occasions, even, when there may have been hypothetical house rules about talking to me in the morning. Maybe. But let’s be real. I don’t make much sense in the morning, so how much of a conversationalist could I be?

Today was a bit different. This morning, I voluntarily got up early on a Sunday to join my neighbors at our first neighborhood coffee gathering. I even got up a little earlier than I needed to, just to make sure that I DID make sense, should anyone feel like conversing with me.

It’s been such a weird couple of months. It feels like we are often all walking on eggshells with each other. I have experienced fear for the first time living on my street when my neighborhood was menaced this fall by a young guy driving a pick up truck with the word REDNECK emblazoned across the rear window and flying a confederate flag over the bed. I live in a diverse neighborhood. It feels like the entire country has become a dog fight, with minority populations being used to bait people into statements and acts that used to horrify us and now have become common.

It is not okay to live in fear. It is not even a place I wish to visit.

I have walked in my neighborhood every day for almost fourteen years, most days twice, with 2 dogs pulling in different directions on the ends of their extendable leashes. I know lots of my neighbors by sight, and some even by name well enough to stop and chat on warm summer mornings. People know me. There are waves and calls to say hi, or to wish me a good holiday in the Christmas season.

There was talk, even before the eggshell-walking started, that we were all quite attached to our neighborhood. People ask after each other. “Have you seen…”  and  “We should have them over…” Someone put up a Facebook page named after our neighborhood so we can communicate with each other.  Last year, some practical joker stacked my recyclable bin on top of the garbage bin and left them that way, ensuring the waste management people would just drive by. I was recovering from knee surgery and navigating the house on crutches. There was no way I could go move the recycle bin, which stands almost as tall as I do, into its correct position. So I posted on our neighborhood Facebook page—“Hey, if anyone is home this morning, can you give me a hand?”  It took less than a minute, and a neighbor popped over, put the bins in their proper locations and popped back into their own house.

On that afternoon when I first saw the pick up truck with the flag slowly cruising my street…no, he was not driving, he was cruising, looking for someone or something… it immediately worried me. There’s an elementary school on the corner, attended primarily by brown and black skinned children. There’s a Muslim family up the next block and the mom walks her daughters to and from school every day. My next door neighbors are Latino. The new neighbors in the corner house are an African American couple. I wondered who would not be safe—who was being looked for.

At first, I was concerned about posting anything to the neighborhood Facebook page. What if some of my neighbors supported the guy in the pick up truck with his flag? Was I going to draw attention or perhaps hostility for speaking up? As the only genderqueer person on this street, I did have to wonder about my safety, too. I can’t imagine that my neighbors don’t already know who I am…but was I crossing a line by speaking up and saying that the pick up truck and the message of the flag were making me uncomfortable?

When I heard that the pick up truck had been spotted on a couple of other nearby streets, I realized I couldn’t let it go. Was I ready to defend my space? Was I ready to speak up for my neighbors? For the little kids walking back and forth to school? I had to.

I posted to the Facebook page: Just want to make you aware…I know many of you have kids…we need to keep our neighborhood safe.  I waited, apprehensive. The comments that followed were warm and appreciative. Everyone who answered understood my point about neighborhood safety and agreed.

A few days later, I was out walking the dogs and the neighbor who wears a burqa passed by to go pick up her girls. Ordinarily, I smile and wave but I don’t go close enough for conversation to anyone with the dogs on their strings. I don’t assume everyone will like my dogs as much I do.  That day, I reeled the dogs all the way in and approached her.

“Have you seen the pick up truck?”

“Yes—and there’s another one just like it further up the street.”

“I don’t know what he’s doing…”

She nodded. “I’m not sure why anyone with those beliefs would move into a neighborhood like ours.”

“You know if anyone bothers you while you’re walking by, you can turn up my driveway—just come right to the house and ring the bell.”  I didn’t need to tell her where I lived. She’s been walking by while I mow the grass for at least two years.

“Thank you. I will remember that.”

“Let your girls know, too. We can’t have this in our neighborhood.”

She continued down the street.

So enough with the eggshells. This morning, I got up early and took my slightly incoherent, gender neutral self over to my neighbors’ house and we gathered with several other families to have coffee and danishes. I don’t know what the political stances of most of those people might be. I don’t know what religious affiliations most of them have. It didn’t matter. We had coffee and talked about spring, and gardening, and house projects, and our pets. I learned about growing mushrooms and that alligators and crocodiles have different temperaments and that most of my neighbors want to keep chickens and bees. Who knew?

We reclaimed our neighborhood and celebrated each other simply by having coffee. Our differences were minor in comparison to the myriad of things we wanted to talk about, standing around on a Sunday morning as kids ran through the kitchen and the dog wanted his belly scratched. In the words of my neighbor Greg, who is a math teacher (something I will never be able to relate to!), “Let’s keep this street and city full of love.”

Indeed, Greg. We all win with that outlook. I’ll get up early for that any day.

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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.

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