Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Celebrations as Triggers

One of the things I wish I had known when I brought my children home from Ethiopia is that speical events would be a major trigger for our kids for the first year they were home.  A special event is something out of routine:  any holiday or event or celebration that people get excited about or put time into preparing for or talk about ahead of time.
I first clued into this when it was time for school photos.  No big deal, right?  It's just a picture.  "Dress up a little today because they are going to take your pictures at school."  Well, several stubborn fits and one all-out meltdown leading up to this event got me thinking.  Oh, the times they had photos taken at the children's home, they were told to smile nice and a family might choose them.  Or something like that.  When it was picture time, I'm sure all the kids were full of anxiety about whether they would ever have a family. 
Valentine's Day - anything the teachers and kids at school talked about as a future event - sent my kids into Anxietyville.  They didn't know what to expect, they could sense that these things were not ordinary things, and they were out of routine.  At the children's home, knowing what was coming next (routine) was one of the few comforts they had.  Surprises, even good ones, were not good.  When they don't know what to expect, there is a little part of their broken hearts that says "hey, this is what it felt like when they put us in a car and sent us to KM and our whole world turned upside-down" or "hey, this is what it felt like when mom died" or "hey, this is what it felt like when we got on the plane and left everything we knew."  It would be enough to make me want to hurl.  But my kids have learned the survival skill of "appearing to have it together."  The "keep it under control" coping mechanism is well-honed in these three.  So, when their anxiety bubbles up to overflow, it comes out as misbehavior. Bossing people around.  Stubborn refusal to do what is asked.  Explosive frustration.  Stomping aways muttering under their breath or screaming "I hate this family!"
So, I learned to sit them down and talk through the event, what might happen, what kinds of feelings they might encounter, what kinds of food there might be, what people usually do, what people usually say, why people do these things.  I let them know how not a big deal it is.  I think of everything I might have worried about when I was 10 or 11 and try to prepare them for that.  I remind them that they are safe, and loved, and this thing is just for fun, or it is to honor and respect someone, and here are the good manners you'll need.  I tell them ways to make it fun.  I tell them we've got their back.
I've come to understand that almost every time one of my kids is misbehaving, it is because they are worried about something.  Medical procedures, trips in the car, visits to people we don't know, someone coming to visit.  Everything that is not routine. Everything that makes them think maybe they don't have any control over the situation. 
They have been home for almost three years now.  Last week, we attended my dad's memorial service.  Laird coached them a lot in the car on the way to Pennsylvania. Rediet has some "selfish brat" moments in the morning, but nothing huge.  At the service, they were respectful, they participated, they had feelings and sought comfort, and they listened.  They were amazing.  My dad would be proud.
(Tonight, I'll add the video of the 18 grandkids tribute to their granddad.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

My dad is gone

Patrick Henry Walker, Sr. died peacefully at home with his loved ones early Wednesday morning, January 18, 2012. He went to join his beloved granddaughter Anna Walker, great-niece Lona Nadal, and daughter-in-law Sue Walker who have been busy getting a party in Heaven ready for him. Pat was an excellent and gentle husband, and a good father.  

Pat was born on April 14, 1931 in Hazelton, PA to Henry and Mary (Lantzy) Walker. He grew up in Hazelton, attended and volunteered at Camp Keller, and worked in Conyngham Valley as a youngster. A wonderful man named Chauncey who worked at the YMCA mentored him. He belonged to the swimming and basketball teams and graduated from Hazelton Senior High School in 1949. He served as a Dental Assistant in the U.S. Navy from 1951 to 1955 in Bainbridge, MD.  He married Joann Marian Hoover in 1954 and enjoyed throwing his kids in the air and teaching them to swim as they grew up. He provided for his family as a draftsman and an entrepreneur. He graduated from Penn State York with an Associate degree in Computer Science in 1971.  He enjoyed music, swimming, magic tricks, genealogy, and computers. He made some great peanut butter fudge using a recipe he was given by his Aunt Helen. During the last year of his life he made four beautiful quilts. He was a man of integrity and a devoted son, husband, father, grandfather, uncle, and friend.

Pat is survived by his wife of 58 years, Joann; and their six children and their partners:  Patrick and Kathy, Michael and Libby, Cynthia and Bruce, Jennifer and Dutch, Barbara and Laird, and Ron and Tami. He is survived by eighteen grandchildren (and partners):  Rebekah, Brandy and John, Matthew and Tabitha, Nikole, Daniel and Sally, Maille, Jake and Angele, Nick and Allison, Jessica, Ben, Tegan, Jordan, Helen, Rediet, Abel, Amanda, Alli, Holly; and seven great grandchildren:  Ryan, Christopher, Winter, Lucien, Juliette, Rolan, and Walker. He is also survived by his sister-in-law, Jesse, and her family:  Ana and Jason and their daughter, Maxine; Nevin; and Elyse.

Pat was inspired by the Four Chaplains to donate his body to medical science. The family greatly appreciates White Rose Hospice for their amazing and invaluable care and attention. In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to White Rose Hospice, 1412 Sixth Ave., York, PA 17403.  A memorial service will be held at 2 pm, Saturday, January 21, 2012 at the Holiday Inn, 400 Loucks Road, York, PA.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

How to Change the World

It's easier to be overcome with compassion fatigue if you're paying any attention at all to world news. Or rather, 'misery-at-realizing-the-ineffectiveness-of-our-range-of-responses fatigue.'  (Seriously, if you ever feel overwhelmed with the state of the world, take some time to read the article at the other end of that link.)  Even if you limit your intake to national news, there are a whole lot of problems out there to which you could apply the small amounts of time and money you are able to devote to helping.  It's hard to imagine that anything you might be able to do as an individual could have a real effect on improving conditions in a asignificant way even if you could pick just one issue on which to focus your aid.  Even doing something really big, like adopting three kids, can seem like a drop in the bucket when you look at the big picture, like millions of orphans worldwide.

So, I'd like to share my strategy for dealing with helplessness fatigue. 

Step 1. Create your Life Guidelines.  Your personal mission statement. Your bottom line.  Whatever you want to call it.  Keep it simple.  One to three short statements that sum up why you are here on this earth.   Your life guidelines may change over time.  You don't have to capture your purpose perfectly.  Spend no more than half an hour crafting your statements.  Distill all your ideas down into a simple statement, or paragraph if you must, and try it on for a while.  You can always revisit it later and change it. 

For a long time, my bottom line was simply the verse Micah 6:8 (my post-colonialist inclusive adaptation of NRSV) : "God has told you, O Mortal, what is good and what Love requires of you: but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." Here's my latest, created on my drive to work yesterday in a matter of five minutes. 

Step 2.  Decide how much time and money you have to use to make the world better.  There are lots of ways you can come up with a number for these two factors (see bonus activity below).  And it is okay if the time factor is two hours and the money factor is zero. Or if the time factor is zero and the money factor is $10 a month.   It really depends on your circumstances.  You have something to give.  This is what matters.  Don't let your belief that you are not enough or you don't have enough kill your intention to help.  You can help.  You can. 

Don't allow yourself to beat you up for making the decisions that brought to this place.  Don't put yourself down for not having enough to give. You have enough.  You are enough.  Don't worry... as you intentionally devote your time and money to helping, you empower yourself to figure out ways to give more.  It's a human thing: we want to help.  We are a social species; it is our destiny to give and receive, to be connected to other human beings in a meaningful way.

Step 3. Pick one cause, or one organization, or one person. Pick one way to help.  Follow your heart.  What makes your heart break most?  What brings actual tears to your eyes? 

Do some research to find one local or national or international organization that is effectively doing something to solve the one problem that breaks your heart most.  Then give what you can to that cause.  It's good to have a way to give of your time, not just your money, so you might want to find a local organization that works on the same issue, or that contributes to the organization you chose.  If you can't find one, create one.  Invite your friends over for tea once a month to work together on finding ways to help the organization.  You could all collect your loose change over the month, then come together to count it and write out a check to send.  You could write letters to the editor (maye not like this one) or to congress.  You could make a poster.  You could make a webpage.

Step 4. Remember.  Remember you are one person, and your first priority is to be a healthy human being living a good life.  Remember the reason your heart breaks for your one cause is because you know the people affected by that problem deserve to be healthy. They deserve to live a good life.  So if you are giving up your healthy, good life, you're not really doing them any good.  That doesn't mean you get to live in oppulent luxury and wastefulness.  You know what you need.  You know how little and simple the things are that truly make your dreams come true.  So be honest.  Give what you can honestly give, and let that be part of your good, healthy life.

Post a picture that represents the people or creatures you are helping on your fridge. Carry one around in your pocket. Whenever you are feeling helpless, just pull it out and look at it and remind yourself you are helping. And if you can, help a little more. 

Step 5.  Show and tell.  This is really how you change the world.  Because if every human being takes these steps, if every human being would consciously give what they can out of an honest assessment of the privilege they possess, then you would see huge changes.  You would start to see real equality and real justice.

My college roommate did something I had never seen.  She washed out her food storage plastic bags and resued them.  At the time, I really didn't get it.  I didn't think it was saving much money, and surely, those tiny things didn't add up to much in the landfill.  Why bother.  She never said anything to me about how I should do that, too.  She just did it.  Years later, when I became more aware of the problem of plastic waste, I started washing out my plastic bags and reusing them. And my daughter reuses her plastic bag. Tamara Gorden changed the world.  Her small act of helping multiplied.  I didn't become an Environmental Engineer like she did. I'm sure she's done even bigger things for this earth since I knew her 29 years ago.  But she inspired me to do what I could, to know more, and to do more.

Don't just be the change you want to see in the world, LEAD the change.  Talk to a friend about the issue and ask your friend what breaks her heart. You can help in so many ways that cost very little time and very little money.  Every little thing you can do to help counts.  The way you live your life counts.  Saying kind words to a lonely stranger on the street might affect that person's world in a way you will never know.  Carrying those plates with you to potlucks and work lunches instead of using the paper products provided is keeping one tiny drop of waste out of the waste stream.  But how many people will see you do that?  What if just one percent of them follow your lead?  How many people will see them keeping their tiny drops out of the bucket?  What if five percent of them start doing the same?  And when people comment on your plates, you can have one of your handy dandy statistics ready.  Or, you can just say how easy it is to carry them and wash them rather than using throwaways.  Just calling paper plates throwaways will put a tiny dent in out single-use consumer cultural assumptions.

Here's a little Michael Franti song to spur you on.  Is your love enough?

Bonus activity for those who like to paint the world by numbers

If you would like a way to come up with a goal for your numbers that are fair based on statistics, try this.

Calcuate your annual income per person for your household. Compare it to the average annual income for the globe.  $1,225 per year per person in the household.  So, for my household, to be globally average, we would have to live on $7,350 annually.  Wow, what would that take?

Okay, well, we can't really do anything practical with that, unless you are in a position to sell everything and live like Jesus did.  No, wait.  I could use that number to give meaning to my giving.  I could make it my goal to spend that much each year on helping. I mean, wouldn't that give me a good handle on just how priveleged I am?  To be able to support my own family, plus support another globally average family?  Or I could make my goal half that.  Whatever I can make fit my life without becoming unhealthy or going into debt.

Or, let's just say we want to get out of that elite group: The 1% richest people on the planet.  For my family, that would mean $204,000.  Okay, well we are not in the 1%.  And not many of my friends are, either, as far as I know.  But, before we adopted three kids, that would have been $102,000.  So, we were pretty darn close to being in the Elite group, the most priveleged people in the world.  See, you can decrease your income by giving money to effective groups or you can decrease your income by adding people to you family!

But, the numbers don't really matter that much beyond bringing you awareness of the privelege you enjoy. For me, that awareness decreases the energy I put into feeling jealous and resentful and complaining about what I don't have or what I "can't" afford.  All that energy can go into reducing waste and increasing generosity.  It totally takes the fun out of "shopping as entertainment." 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Your Work ≠ Your Job Description

This morning as I drove my daughter to school, we were talking about her work schedule.  She is working at Panera for some teenage cash flow.  She often works until close, which means she gets to clean the bathrooms at the end of the day.  I said, "You're going to get really good at cleaning bathrooms." She shrugged.

I told her about my days working on a nuclear power plant construction site.  About 5000 people worked there (only about 100 were women).  I was 20 years old, taking a break from college to earn more money for college tuition.  I was an Engineer's Aid.  I accompanied the Pipefitter Apprentice to the field in order to watch a Pipefitter tighten the bolts on pipe hangers.  As part of the engineering staff, I was not allowed to carry the torque wrench, which is why we needed the Pipefitter Apprentice.  I had to sign off on the fact that the hanger bolts were tightened properly.  There are lots of rules on a nuclear power plant construction site. I also looked up valve vendor information the engineers needed for their drawings and did other small jobs for the small pipe engineers.

My desk was in a big metal building on the other side of the road that wound around the giant plant.  On the side of that road closer to the building was a long row of portapots.  Every day, there was a man who drove around cleaning out the portapots.  He had the big truck with the large vacuum hose.  Every day, when he parked that truck outside our building, and cleaned out those pots, he sang.  He sang loud.  Really loud.  He sang so loud we could hear him inside our building, over the sound of the truck sucking the crap out of the pots.  He sang hymns with great joy.  He did this every day, without fail.  He was the most joyful person I had ever encountered in my young life. 

I wish I knew his name.  I think I waved to him and smiled once in a while as I walked out to the field to check on bolts or find some info on valves.  Eventually I was given more important jobs like making "as-built" changes to drawings of pipe after it had been installed and inspecting the welds on the hangers.  I was able to save most of my earnings because my parents supported me by letting me live with them and feeding me while I saved for college. (My dad worked at the plant, too, and helped me get my job there.)  I worked there for a year, and then made my way back to school.  I don't know what happened to the man who sang while he cleaned the portapots.  But, I wish I could tell him that his expression of joy has been with me all my life.  I remember him every time I have a yucky job to do and I want to complain.  And I start smiling.  And singing.

So, if anyone out there knows a sanitation worker who worked at Limerick in Pennsylvainia in 1981-1982, let him know that he did important work.  He made a difference in this world.  Tell him that I am deeply grateful for his gift to me.

Here is one of my favorite hymns to celebrate this man today.

Friday, January 6, 2012

My new theory: the natural conservation of Fine

Note: I created a song on the way home from dropping Jordan at school, then I got in the shower and this stream was unleashed. I'm too shy to share the raw song, so you get this. Hot off the brainwaves, people.

Let’s say that about 50 percent of my life is Fine, and about 50 percent of it is Not So Fine.  Because I grew up in this American culture built on a strange combination of struggle, violence, rightesouness, arrogance, and optimism, I tend to present myself as a person who is Fine.  “Everything’s fine.”  Yep, things are A-OK.  Then there are those times when I can’t hold on to that front, and I rant.  Everything is shit.  Life sucks.  My life is hell.  You get the picture.

What if the reality is that 50 percent of the time I’m doing okay, making good choices, and my circumstances are Fine, and the other 50 percent of the time I’m making mistakes, and there are circumstances beyond my control that are just Not Fine?  What if I don’t recognize that and instead try to keep up the appearance that Everything is Fine?  We call this Denial, which happens with both the Fine and the Not Fine. What I end up doing is waffling between the belief that everything is fine and the belief that everything is Not Fine.  And by waffling I mean wallowing, baby.  If there is one things we know how to do in this culture, it is wallowing.

What if I walked around knowing and acknowledging and admitting that about half the time, things are Fine, and half the time things are Not Fine.  (Okay, at any given point in a person’s life, it could well be that it is not an even half and half split, but on average, let’s just assume, that a person is given a life during which half the time circumstances and choices made are fine.)  If I don’t walk around thinking that everything SHOULD be Fine all the time, then I can actually see and admit when I make mistakes, and I can talk about that and try to make amends for it.  If I admit that things are Not Fine half the time, then I am also free to see how things ARE fine half the time.  And man, what if half the time things really are Fine?  Can I believe that?  Because when I get into the habit of hiding the Not Fine in my Everything’s Fine front, I might not trust when things really are Fine.  If I have to deny when things are Not Fine, then I also have to deny when things are Fine.  I might even start constantly looking for evidence that things are Never Fine… and when I look for evidence, I sure can find it, and then it starts looking as if things really are Not Fine.  All the time.

What if I could walk around my life knowing that things are Fine half the time?  Then, I would really be able to enjoy the Fine things.  AND, when things are Not Fine, I could remember that it is only going to be for half the time. This Not Fine time is temporary.  That makes Not Fine so much easier to handle.  If I am free to see the Not Fine as temporary, instead of a reason to Struggle, then I can operate from a place of not fearing it.  If I am not afraid of it, my brain is free to actually think about it rationally and maybe even solve it, or fix it, or deal with it, or let it be.  And that makes Not Fine not so Not Fine.  Right?  So, even though I am still in a life that is 50 percent Not Fine, and I am still making mistakes about 50 percent of the time I have any power to choose,  it just doesn’t feel as Not Fine… because I am not letting it feel like it is 90 or 100 percent Not Fine. 

So what if my life is really 60 percent Not Fine, and the person next to me happened to be luckier than me and got a 40 percent Not Fine life?  So What?  If I am rational about it, I will be fine.  If I spend all my life trying to hide or run away from the Not Fine, then no matter how little of my life is actually Not Fine… it will still feel like a large percentage of my life is Not Fine.  If I am rational about it, and embrace the reality that my life is 40 percent FINE…. Well, isn’t that a beautiful thing? 

Now, apply this to the big picture.  Let’s say, this nation.  On the one hand, we have the whole denial thing going on: everything is Fine… (chant with me) we’re number 1 we’re number 1 And we have the whole Everything Is Crap thing going on.  We are so busy arguing over these two positions, in very passionate (read: emotional, irrational, diametric you’re wrong I’m right) ways, that we, as a group, don’t seem to be able to devote our  formidable Collective Brain Power to the actual work of making things better, of solving the problems.  If you can’t see or admit the difference between what is working and what is not working, you can’t begin to solve problems.  If you think everything is Fine, you can’t even see the Not Fine to work on it.  And if you can’t see the Fine, well, you are going to either be overwhelmed (and not able to fix anything), or you are going to start trying to fix things that aren’t broken.  And all the while, we (collective) are putting up this front… Everything is Fine… we’re number 1 we’re number 1!!!!  

Here’s the thing.  If I can admit that I make mistakes about half the time I have some kind of power, then I can admit that I could easily be wrong at any point in my life.  If I can admit that I could be wrong, then I can admit that my enemy could be right.  Then, my enemy ceases to be my enemy.  The I’m right, you’r wrong can become “Let’s see.”  We become We. All that energy that goes into fighting over who is right about what is Fine and what is Not Fine is freed to be put into actual Problem Solving.

So, my theory breaks down when I start talking about fixing things.  Because if we can fix things that are truly Not Fine, that means the 50/50 split between Fine and Not Fine might actually change.  It might tip towards a 60/40 split… as in, things will get better.  Wait… you mean if we admit the reality of there being things that are Fine and thing that are Not Fine, we might actually have the power to make things better?!??!!!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Stop Trying So Hard

I'm 50 years old and just beginning to see a few things clearly.

I tried to hard to give my first three children a better life than mine, or at least, a better childhood than my childhood... less rules, more fun, good food, good books, many songs, hugs and words of love.  My childhood wasn't so bad, but I grew up with a lot of loneliness.  I so wanted my kids to know they were not alone.

But, it turns out, every one of us is, ultimately, alone. I didn't really know how to deal with my own loneliness so I covered it up with fun and food and books and songs and do do do.  They were good things to do, but I wish I had focused less on doing, and more on being.  I wish I had taken an honest look inside and dealt with what I found.  I wish I had made time for parenting me.  I wish I had spent less time trying to be perfect, less time giving, and more time simply seeing and wondering and appreciating.  I wish I would have helped my kids understand that loneliness is inevitable, and showing them what to do with that feeling when it does come.

Good parenting has little to do with providing, showing, leading, guiding.  It is really about being... about letting my kids see me being. Awake. Sad. Appreciative. Distressed. Creative. Mad. Kind. Kind to me. Aware of the kindness of others. Compassionate. Alive.

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” -Pema Chodron

There is no need for the armor of perfection.  The perfect mother will not have a child who knows what to do when despair falls on her.  The perfect mother will not have a child who knows how to dig himself out of a pile of mistakes he has made.  The perfect mother will not have a child who can see all that is good and pleasant in this world.

“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”  -Pema Chodron 

“There is a story of a woman running away from tigers. She runs and runs and the tigers are getting closer and closer. When she comes to the edge of a cliff, she sees some vines there, so she climbs down and holds on to the vines. Looking down, she sees that there are tigers below her as well. She then notices that a mouse is gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries close to her, growing out of a clump of grass. She looks up and she looks down. She looks at the mouse. Then she just takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly. Tigers above, tigers below. This is actually the predicament that we are always in, in terms of our birth and death. Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life; it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.”  -Pema Chodron