Don’t call us, we’ll call you

July 28, 2014

April – May: Survive

Filed under: Chronic illness, Personal — Tags: , , , , , — llcall @ 3:33 am

I was gonna do ALL THE THINGS this year with 12 monthly themes, but now? Not so much. At least I organized, cooked, and worked.

What was I supposed to be doing in April and May, again? Researching? Writing? Quilting? Yeah, I didn’t do any of those. But I did survive and isn’t that what really matters? We were actually hit with quite a case of the yucks in April. We were all laid up for various lengths of time with colds, flus, and stomach ailments. My family’s camping trip, in the works for almost a year: I missed it. A solid week of work at my new job: slept through it. Addison’s annual visit with my parents so that Neal and I can celebrate our anniversary: vomited through it. BUT I SURVIVED!

By the time May rolled around, I was healthy but had some new things to survive. After having reduced hours in my online teaching the previous semester, they asked me to bump back up to my previous workload of two classes and supervisory responsibilities (it’s cyclical based on a credit-hour cap per year). Then, my new job asked if I could take on some extra hours in May and June to help us finish out the fiscal year. Normally I wouldn’t agree to 50-hour work weeks, but for a variety of long-term planning reasons, we decided to give it a whirl for a semester and see if we all . . . survived. Also, did I mention that in April they asked me to be in the Primary Presidency (overseeing the children at our church) in addition to leading the local Cub Scouts? Thank goodness I’m great with kids, right?! (Or have no idea how to talk to kids – one of those.)

I guess you already know what happened. I survived. All of it. I’m not planning on taking on that much work again anytime soon, but it worked out and our bank account will be much happier come August (I teach on contract so no pay comes in that month). After that month of ill health in April, I felt incredibly blessed and sustained to get through May as well as I did. Especially considering June’s theme . . .

July 18, 2014

Hawaii is RIDICULOUS, just in case you’re wondering . . .

Filed under: Personal — Tags: , , , , , — llcall @ 11:14 pm

Holy cow! You guys, this place is NUTS!!! I’ve been in Hawaii for 24 hours and I’ve already snorkeled, paddleboarded, longboarded (just the laying out and drifting part), swam with a sea turtle, and eaten amazing food and tropical fruit. (Most of the thanks for this awesome agenda goes to my fabulous native-born cousins for showing us around!) You know how I grew up like 20 minutes from the beach . . . well, my beach ain’t nothing like this! The color of the water alone is astounding. So many shades of blue and green in comparison to my mostly gray-blue ocean.

The Hawaii hype? It’s totally legit.

July 14, 2014

School

Filed under: Family, Motherhood, Personal — Tags: , , , , , — llcall @ 6:11 am

How is it possible that I’m having conversations with people about when Addison is starting school? How did she get this old?!

I’ve never lived in an area like this when it comes to schools (or anything else, for that matter). There is a local school district, entailing an elementary school (K-4) in our town and a middle (5-8) and high (9-12) school in the next town over. But we also live right on a county line, which means that just 2 towns over is a small K-8 school in L.A. County. That school is a “school of choice” and they actively recruit from our county because the number of students for whom it would be a home school is minuscule (there are literally only 15 homes in the whole town).

Homeschooling is also pretty big in this area. The reasons vary depending on who you talk to, but some claim that the local school district doesn’t do enough with bullying, meeting individual needs, and challenging academics. (I technically work for the school district in “Support Services,” but I have no direct knowledge related to any of the complaints I’ve heard.) There’s a charter school from down in the valley that has branch up here in order to support homeschooling parents in the area. (There is also a charter school 3 towns in the other direction, but it’s too far to be an option we’re considering.)

Over the past several months, a handful of parents I’ve known have been encouraging us to put Addison in the small L.A. County school next year, chiefly because of the small class sizes. From what I’ve heard, the kindergarten class is a K/1 classroom with about 15 kids total. Crazy, right? I have also had the opportunity over the last couple of months to meet and talk with the K/1 teacher. She does some community events (like a special storytime at the library) to meet parents and kids in the area. Yesterday we had a really good conversation about her methods in the classroom and philosophy of education as well as my particular concerns about Addison and how school will work out for her.

Addison is obviously very verbal for her age, which is probably the reason why so many people ask me about school because they think she seems kindergarten-ready. And if you ask her, she definitely is! She is going to preschool two mornings a week and is always telling me, “I said I wanted to go at least three days a week!” Well, get a job, lady! Preschool won’t pay for itself! She is also listening keenly whenever she hears Neal and I discussing school or preschool, which only became clear to me when I overheard her telling a kid on the playground, “I heard my mom say that I’m on the wait-list for another preschool day.” Do you even know what a wait-list is, kid? The elementary school is a pretty prominent feature in our town so she’s been there several times and inevitably we have to have a conversation about why she’s not quite old enough for school (it doesn’t help that some of her playmates meet the cut-off for either kindergarten or transitional kindergarten). Even before she turned 4, she was saying things like “I never get to take spelling tests like the other kids!” Um, who have you been talking to?

Having grown up with a public educator for a parent, I’ve always been a huge proponent of public education. Do I think it’s always the best academic education for a child? No. But I have always felt that if those who have the means or education to find other options for their kids abandon public schools, or the lowest-performing public schools, then it reinforces a troubling stratification in society. But it’s always very interesting when the “rubber” of your life philosophy meets the “road” of your actual child. I never in a million years thought that I would consider homeschooling but the older Addison has gotten, the more I have contemplated some benefits that it would bring. Or rather, some issues that it would head off. I have no doubt that Addison could meet the academic requirements of public school, but I do worry about the combination of her talkative nature and high energy level in the classroom. Ultimately, Addison would never forgive us for homeschooling her. She craves being out in the world, and with other people. “Home” anything is something she wants to limit her exposure to as much as possible. (So ironic, no?) But I genuinely worry about traditional schooling squelching her natural curiosity and creativity as well as teaching her that her fundamental nature is unacceptable.

It was good to have this specific conversation with the K/1 teacher. We touched on my concerns about excessive academic standards for 5 year olds. My desire for a more interactive, play-based curriculum for Addison. Fears about her being able to succeed (happily) in an environment where she is asked to sit still (and inside) for large portions of the day (all kindergarten options here are full day). I really connected with many of this teacher’s responses, the biggest being that with such a small class size she can allow a lot more movement, activity, and outdoor time without having classroom management issues. They go on many field trips (because they are small enough to not require a bus). They grow a garden. They have a tent in the classroom. She said that even when they do a traditional writing assignment, they are allowed to get up and walk around, go up to the “word board” to figure things out. I want to do a classroom visit to understand how this all plays out, but it sounded very promising. Not to mention the fact that someone who does a storytime and craft with kids in her free time must really enjoy her job.

While technically both of these elementary schools meet several low-income criteria, I can tell that many of the higher SES parents in the area are opting for the L.A. county school of late, which certainly creates a dilemma for us. Although Neal and I started out with more divergent ideas about our kids’ education, over time, we seemed to have converged on the idea that we will not just choose what we think is the “best school” or the “best school for our kid.” We will choose a school in which we can invest in a way that will help elevate other more at-risk students (without, of course, actively endangering or harming her). Because for all my concerns and worries about her, I know she has so many advantages in life in comparison to others, even in our immediate area. In a way, it’s kind of exciting to have these big questions looming — what will work for her? where are we needed most? — and a one-year deadline on making the decision. It’s time to get my research on!

And in case it’s too simple, how do we account for the fact that by this time next year we plan to have two more kids, quite probably with special needs of some type? It’s going to be an interesting year for us!

July 13, 2014

Paperwork

Filed under: Personal, Social Services — Tags: , , , — llcall @ 11:56 pm

I’ve been pretty quiet on here for a couple of months, but some of you may have caught my Father’s Day guest post on Neal’s blog. He titled it “A Father for the Fatherless” (writers never get to pick their own headlines!) but I originally called it “Paperwork.” His blog has an abridged and more theatrical version (no song and dance, but pictures and images) but I didn’t want to lose some of the other details of my interactions with Marty (names and other identifying details were changed to mask his identity, by the way). So, the unabridged version . . .

There is barely an inch of uncovered space in the Resource Center where I work. Flyers advertising school lunch programs and community health screenings obscure the glass window in the front door. Clipboards of blue, tan, and salmon colored papers greet clients as they enter. Someone asks if I have any scholarship applications. I sift through a thick manila folder. How about a bus schedule? I pull one off the tack board hanging above my desk. Can I get a dog license? Sure, just fill out this form. Diapers? It’s an emergency! I grab my key to the supply closet. I want to quit smoking, can you help? I lead them to a magazine stand labeled Smoking Cessation Programs. I’m worried that my son was molested. First, let me close the door. Now, tell me everything, as I pull out a Suspected Child Abuse Report. At the Resource Center, we don’t tell people what we do. We ask them what they need because, chances are, we can help.

But the help isn’t free. The currency we exchange is paperwork. I greet each client, shake hands, show them into my office, and proceed to complete forms with titles like:

Application for Exemption from Medi-Cal Health Plan Designation

Family Stability Rubric

SAR 7 Eligibility Status Report

Core Data Elements

The titles sound so sterile, so clinical. Just the core data elements, please. Nothing superfluous. Tell us a story? God forbid.

But it turns out that stories are what 68-year-old Italian men do. I knew right off Marty wasn’t from around here. With my office just across from the receptionist’s desk, I hear clients before I see them, and a Brooklyn accent sticks out like a sore thumb in a place that’s nearly 3000 miles away on the opposite coast.

In my three months of working at the Resource Center, I’ve noticed that the desperation the client feels is directly proportional to the number of people they tell their story to as they enter the front office. While I finish up my previous client’s paperwork, I hear Marty’s voice moving around the room, barely a pause to draw breath. To the receptionist, he details the unexpected drug bust on his niece, which led to the heart attack, which led to the month-long hospitalization. To the quiet client waiting for her appointment, he exclaims, “I had no idea my niece was into that stuff, you know! It’s crazy!” To the Sparkletts delivery man, collecting our empty bottles, Marty explains, “It’s been a month since I seen my Godson — that’s as long as we been apart his whole life.”

Sometimes it takes a while to understand just what a client is asking for. It’s understandable; when life is spinning out of control, it can be hard to figure out what will stabilize it. But as he sat down in my office, Marty told me exactly what he was there for.

“My Godson was taken away on account a his mom doin’ drugs — they found needles and all kinds of crazy stuff in her room — and I need to get ‘im back.  I need the social worker to fax me the paperwork here and then I need you to help me fill it out, make sure I’m doin’ it right cause he’s been away from me for over a month on account a me goin’ to the hospital for my heart attack. The shock’s what did it. The police come busting into my house — and I’m retired law enforcement, mind you — and search all the rooms. They haul Barb right off and I can’t believe the things they’re pullin’ out of her room. I had no idea. And while I’m in the hospital just tryin’ to survive, Barb ups and signs away her rights. So the state’s got Mike now but I gotta get him back. Ya see what I mean?”

It wasn’t long before I had the paperwork in hand.

Verification of Relative or Non-Relative Extended Family Member (NREFM)

 Application for Assessment of Relative/NREFM Home

Just three short pages, about 36 questions, to explain why you should be the one to love and care for a child. I hand the papers to Marty but he puts his hand up to block them. “See, I need you to do it,” Marty says, a hint of pleading in his mostly matter-of-fact tone. “We gotta get everything just right. Will you write for me?”

No problem, I think. Paperwork is what I do. I read aloud the first question and set to work squeezing his narrative into the space provided.

Name of Minor. “Michael Jonathan Bricker. But we called him Mikey from day one. I was there from the time he was born, you know. He came home to my house and I’ve been with ‘im ever since. I used ta . . . .”

Minor’s DOB. “It’s today. He turns 13 today. 3/22/2001. I can’t believe I don’t getta be with ‘im on his birthday. I talked to the social worker and said I gotta speak with ‘im. They let me call ‘im but when I heard his voice I just broke down. I couldn’t even talk. I just bawled. I can’t believe I’m not with ‘im for his birthday, he’s thir . . . .”

He breaks off in quiet sobs. I look up from the paperwork and instinctively stretch my hand toward him. But I stop halfway there, resting it on the file cabinet that separates us. It’s still at least a foot from being anywhere near to a consoling touch. After a decade working with prisoners, who were shackled to avoid physical contact, I’m still grappling with how to reach out.

Brief description of your relationship to child/comments. I stare at the paper. I have four and a half lines to distill from Marty the special ways he comforted his infant Godson; how he had to bend his  6′ 7″ frame in half as he held the hand of a toddler learning to walk; how he walked the preschooler to classes everyday because “he has some learning problems but he’s hangin’ in there”; how he drove the teenager to and from high school right up until the day the cops burst in.

“He’s been my whole world, you know,” Marty concludes. I wonder if that description is brief enough for the powers-that-be.

Marital status. “Single. I’ve been single my whole life. Never married or had my own fam’ly. Mikey’s been my only kid. He’s been with me all ‘is life. I’ve always provided a home and I always will.”

Name of child’s father. “Sam Bricker. But he died looong time ago. He wasn’t hardly in Mikey’s life.”

Here Marty stopped abruptly. I expected the story of Sam, since I’d already heard about growing up in New York, a girl he once knew that looked like me, and life as a police deputy. But there was nothing else he had to say about Mikey’s father. Maybe he knew that Sam’s absence was one of the things that had ensured his own place in Mikey’s life, but you don’t want to give thanks for something like that.

Have you ever been arrested? “Oh, hell no! I’m retired from law enforcement, remember? I gotta pension from ‘em.”

Do you have any serious health problems or disabilities? “Well, I’ve had both knees done. You can see that.” He points to identical 8-inch-long scars. I hadn’t noticed them earlier; they’re faded enough to be hardly visible while standing. From the hobbling way he moved his enormous frame, I had guessed hip replacement. “Besides, that I only got about half a spine. Then there’s the heart thing, but after a month-and-a-half at the hospital, that’s pretty much done. But yeah, I guess, basically I’m disabled.” It was surprising the way he had to look his whole body over and take stock of his injuries before coming to that conclusion. Around the Resource Center, being disabled is often worn on your sleeve.

“But I take care a myself,” Marty adds after a minute. “I can take care a myself. I got Social Security comin’ in and a pension — law enforcement is tough on your body. I don’t need to be livin’ with people to get on.” I wonder if he’s trying to convince himself since he’s already told me he is living with people to get back on his feet. 

Have you ever had a problem with alcohol, drugs, or prescription medication? “No, never! If I’d a known his mom was doin’ that, she’d be right outta that house! I told Mikey his mom made some really bad choices; don’t ever go down that road or your Godfather will be right on your tail.”

If the children cannot be returned to the care of their parents, are you willing to adopt the children or become their legal guardians? “Oh, yeah. I’d take care a ‘im forever. I saw my niece. I says, ‘Barb, why’d you sign over your rights so fast? You don’t give up on your own baby.’ She said, ‘So I have to hear this from you?’ Damn right, you do! You don’t give up your kid for drugs. I don’t care if they’re 2 or 62, they’re your baby forever. How does she not get that? I’ll take care a ‘im forever.”

I’m blinking back tears. That’s another thing I haven’t figured out yet: do I let them see me cry? It’s hard to do paperwork through welled-up tears, and drips will smear the ink. Do I need to look unphased, to instill confidence that things will be okay? Or can I show them that I’m a little afraid that the thing they want, more than they’ve ever wanted anything, might never be? Just released from the hospital, disabled, living with a friend, not realizing drugs were infiltrating his home until the cops came knocking. I’m no custody expert, but these don’t sound like good signs.

Please add any additional information you wish to provide. One and a half lines, this time. Barely enough room to say, “Please, I’ll do anything to be with my Mikey again”; no room to post your whole heart on the page.

We finish up with his signature and I prepare the fax. The space between the faxing and the confirmation feels interminable, his and Mikey’s whole future hanging in the balance. I assure him that I’ll call the social worker to make sure she received the fax. I know she did, and he doesn’t ask me to call, but it’s all I can do and so I’ll do it. As he gets up to leave, he tells me matter-of-factly, “I’m gonna hug you.” He wraps his hulking arms around me — I’m not sure I’ve ever been held in such long arms and I can feel how powerful they still are — and whispers, “You’re an angel,” as he kisses my cheek with a loud and purposeful muah. He turns to leave and I still haven’t moved. Should I have hugged back? What were my parting words? Did he see my smile? I can still hear him repeating thank you, thank you, thank you as he hobbles out of the office, and I can’t stop smiling. Finally, I take a shaky breath and sit down to finish my paperwork.

April 27, 2014

A good life

Filed under: Chronic illness, History, Personal — Tags: , , — llcall @ 11:39 pm

In a comment on my post earlier this week, Em mentioned that Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit and Unbroken, had spoken publicly about her struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I had never heard her “story” before so I looked up her New Yorker essay, along with assorted interviews and articles. So many parts were eerily familiar. We were almost the same age at onset, dropping out of college, being accused of making up our symptoms to avoid going back to school (so puzzling since college was the best thing ever!), and deemed more fitting for a psychiatrist than a physician. Many things from this interview on Beliefnet resonated with my experience, but especially her response to what advice she would give to others with CFS. She said:

It’s such an individual journey. But what I would say is, no matter what happens with this illness, I think it is possible to carve out a dignified and productive life. This illness takes everything away from you, and you have to find completely different ways to define what your life will mean to you. But I think it’s possible to make a good life. I have been happy in the time that I’ve been sick. It requires a real redefinition of everything, but I think it is possible to do.

More than anything, getting sick as a teenager forced me to completely redefine my life. Everything was gone, and I had to put things back together one little piece at a time. But like her, I know it’s possible to “carve out a dignified and productive life.” I’m really not sure how long this new “day job” will be sustainable for me, which is why I’m so grateful to live in a time where I know I can do productive work right from my own bed. Despite the hopelessness that I’ve sometimes felt over the last month, I know I’ve had a good life and that I will continue to, regardless of how my health ebbs and flows.

April 21, 2014

March: Work

I organized; I cooked. Two months in a row sticking to my plan isn’t too shabby! Alas, no research happened in March. But lots of work nonetheless. If I had known at the start of this year that I would be taking on another job, I probably would have changed 2014’s theme from Do ALL THE THINGS! to Just Stay Alive. I know working Monday through Wednesday from 8:30-3:15 doesn’t sound like a ton, but oh goodness, this has been a hard change!

I managed it pretty well in March, but April has been another story. I’ve been sick almost every day in April, even missing a whole week of work. I think I have taken for granted my relative good health these last couple of years and forgotten how grinding more intense chronic pain, sickness, and insomnia gets.  It has been a struggle to not slip into a depression after the last two and a half weeks. (I should probably reread this post.) Working out of my house, which I haven’t done in a rigid way since probably 2005, certainly adds an extra layer of stress when I’m feeling ill. At 4:30 am it really doesn’t help to keep telling myself, “You have to sleep. You have to get up in 3 hours . . . 2 hours . . . 1 hour.”

Despite all that, my new job is a good combination of great coworkers (I think that has all but solved my need for a social outlet in our town), direct service, and repetitive paperwork. I know some people hate paperwork, but for me, the paperwork is essential. I love the precision element of it — my paperwork can be nearly perfect with effort, even if the lives of my clients (and all humans, obviously) are always messy. And I love the space it offers to decompress after those difficult meetings. But even in those difficult meetings — like the one with someone whose husband had abandoned her after a particularly messy fight several days before, in which I had to find a way to gently express that breaking things throughout the house is in fact a sign of domestic violence even if he didn’t break her — there is something refreshing in comparison to prison work. Because I can always help them, somehow. Even if it’s just a bag of food from our Food Pantry or a pack of diapers or a small gift card to the local market, I know I can always send them away with a tangible thing that will make them feel a little more hopeful about the future. Not to mention a hug or supportive touch on the arm. Human touch is valuable; it’s only in replaying all these meetings, first with my incarcerated men and now with these men and women, that I see how different a meeting is in which we often could not even shake hands.

I need to go back to work tomorrow despite still not being in the best shape physically. Writing this out made that prospect feel just a little bit easier.

April 20, 2014

Easter wrestlings

Filed under: Books, Personal — Tags: , , , , , , — llcall @ 10:21 pm

Can you believe I finally had the wherewithal to post about Halloween and it is apparently another holiday that I’m supposed to have candy and baskets for? Who can keep up?

Although we didn’t manage anything resembling egg dying or Easter baskets — unless you count the fact that Neal put a couple of pieces of candy in some of her bath toys and buried them in the backyard for her to dig up — I have been thinking about the meaning of Easter. Perhaps it’s largely a reflection of my state of mind right now (which has been a bit depressed as of late), but I’ve been a little troubled about it.

Rather than go into detail on all that, I want your opinion on something, mostly context-free of my own thoughts. It is this:

Derek Flood model

(A table from this book chapter by evangelical theologian Derek Flood) 

If you have any exposure to Christianity or the New Testament, regardless of your religious status now, I’d love to hear what you think about this. Does one of these more closely represent your concept of justice and mercy? What do you think your own religion or the New Testament teaches on this subject? (As you may be able to gather, Flood, in his book Healing the Gospel, contends that most people see Christianity through the lens of the Criminal Model when in fact he believes the New Testament presents it another way.)

Feel free to hit me up with a private email if you’re not comfortable posting a public comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts or relevant experiences!

April 19, 2014

Happy Halloween!

Filed under: Family, Motherhood, Personal — Tags: , , — llcall @ 9:29 pm

Wait, what? You don’t celebrate Halloween in March? Can I at least get credit for buying the pumpkin in October?

I had been promising Addison that we would paint her pumpkin, so I thought it was high time after 5 months and some major pumpkin wiltage. I know some people prefer carving but (1) yuck and (2) you can’t carve a pumpkin that’s probably molded right out internally.

DSCN9870 resizeDSCN9877 resize

 We don’t paint very often around here, but when we do, we don’t mess around!

March 28, 2014

Be still, my soul

Filed under: Chronic illness, History, Personal — Tags: , , , — llcall @ 8:56 am

I’ve had the strangest day today. Not in terms of anything remarkable happening — in fact, I was only out of bed for a combined 3 hours — but in the way I’ve felt. It had something to do with this:

Not David Archuleta (though I’m sure he’s perfectly lovely, I think I’ve heard him sing about twice in my life), but the song. I’ve written before about some songs that loom large in my life, but this is the most important one. I think I might have killed myself* a time or two if not for these words, this music that seeped into my soul at just the right moments.

I never turn down an opportunity to listen to this hymn, so when this video came across my newsfeed, I had to click on it. In the process I revisit a thousand moments: I’m on the floor in the bathroom too weak to move; I’m singing to Addison while she cries through her growing pains (she used to request “still my soul” but of course, I thought she was spelling it “steal my soul” and never could figure out who would teach her such a terrible song); I’m at the tragically beautiful funeral of one of the dearest little ones ever to grace the earth. This song simultaneously takes me back to the moments that I was giving up completely and the ones where I decided to never give up.

Each lyric has been important to me in its own time and way, but today it’s this one: “Be still, my soul: Thy God doth undertake to guide the future as he has the past.” These last several years have been a tumultuous time in my church. And these last several months have been a tumultuous time in my ward. And these last several weeks have been a tumultuous time in my life as I’m trying to figure out how to get out of bed every morning and sit upright for 7 hours a day (and then sleep afterward — it’s currently 2:00 am). But today I feel no fear. My God has delivered me and so many others from much worse than this, and I know He does undertake to guide the future just as He has the past.

Be still, my soul: The Lord is on thy side;

With patience bear thy cross of grief or pain.

Leave to thy God to order and provide;

In ev’ry change he faithful will remain.

Be still, my soul: Thy best, thy heav’nly Friend

Thru thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

 

Be still, my soul: Thy God doth undertake

To guide the future as he has the past.

Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;

All now mysterious shall be bright at last.

Be still, my soul: The waves and winds still know

His voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.

 

Be still, my soul: The hour is hast’ning on

When we shall be forever with the Lord,

When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,

Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.

Be still, my soul: When change and tears are past,

All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

 

*Have I talked about being seriously suicidal on here before? Because I’m going to. There’s no other way to explain my life. (I’ve been a little scared to do it, though I’ve danced around the topic enough that I’m sure most of you have picked up on the subtext.)

March 23, 2014

What Need Looks Like

Filed under: Personal, Personal Finance — Tags: , , , , , — llcall @ 8:52 pm

In the days after Neal and I finally agreed to raise our grocery budget from $145 to $200 per month, I was feeling flush with yummier things to eat. I bought a loaf of french bread to eat with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I bought a can of freeze-dried mushrooms (my friend sells these and can get reduced rates if you’re ever in the market for shelf-stable food) to rehydrate and add to some of my meals (SO much better than those water-logged canned mushrooms). Best of all, I probably went at least a week without eating any beans at all!

So I was a little surprised when I clicked on a friend’s Facebook link about a photography exhibit of “Picturing Hunger in America” and found this picture front and center:

Hunger

The photos are, of course, meant to increase awareness of and empathy for the plight of low-income American families. But I couldn’t feel immediate empathy for this family, similar in size and budget, because I was too busy thinking about how Neal and I would negotiate this particular grocery list. Him crossing roast beef right off the list, while I opine about how juice is just frivolous and has too much sugar; water is so refreshing, anyway!

When I saw that picture I had to pause and contemplate whether the people I interact with, my friends and family (who sometimes joke about us starving Addison — lunch is still our Achilles’ heel), actually think that we, eating off of $50 per week, are hungry. They couldn’t possibly think that we’re going to bed with unbearably empty stomachs, right? I don’t want to downplay real pain that Americans are experiencing, but this is what hunger actually looks like, isn’t it?

This is such a complex topic. To really give context to my own reaction, I would have to talk about some of my previous work with those in poverty, my own experience on food stamps (10 or so years ago), the debate about “food deserts,” and some of the differences between being low-income vs. being in poverty (because we’re obviously low-income, but we’re nowhere near poverty-stricken). But time is my scarcest resource right now, since I started my second job almost a month ago.

In addition to teaching online, I’m now a case manager (part-time) for the family resource center in our town. I work primarily with low-income families with young children, visiting them at home, teaching parenting classes, and connecting them with whatever types of resources they need (food, shelter, insurance, government programs, legal assistance, domestic violence counseling, etc.). As much as I have felt that compassion and empathy are among my strong suits, I have to admit that I’ve already encountered situations, like the one above, in which my judgmental voice was activated far more quickly than my empathic one. It’s hard to suppress my pathological frugality when I’m daily examining others’ income and bank statements, and trying to resist asking for their projected line-item budget for the year. Someone says, We NEED this and my personal finance voice says, Are you sure that’s a need and not a want? Are you sure you’ve prioritized that need over your other wants? I think back to the first time I saw that picture above and the thoughts that ran through my head: This is not what hunger looks like; THIS is what hunger looks like. This is not what need looks like; THIS is what need looks like.

I’ve spent so long looking at incarcerated men — their needs and all the things they’ve lacked or lost — that my heart is soft for them, even without a word. I work with a different group now and I can see that my heart needs to get softer. Is it more difficult because there’s more of a resemblance there? And how to soften my heart in just the right way, so that I can still go home and leave my work at work (as if that’s ever happened!) or say no, in the kindest way possible, when that’s the only appropriate answer?

So talk to me. What helps you to activate your empathic voice, even if you have to do so in conjunction with one of judgment? I’ve found this video from Dr. Brene Brown (and her other work) very insightful . . . but what else?

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