“The meek shall inherit the earth”

IMG_0579This blog’s Biblical title enters my mind fairly often when I contemplate my workplace.  And if I haven’t scared you off with this reference, I can tell you several reasons why my job draws it out.  For one thing, the disability services organization I work for as a program manager has little structure or supervision, and yet our staff engages in humane and caring interactions with people in pain, every day.

Another reason is that this job has introduced me to people who continually remind me of the most important things in life.  The job has exposed me to people with developmental disabilities with whom the only way to be, or so it feels, is present and genuine, responding from my better self as I talk with others about our shared realities.  A third reason the job suggests to me another way of being, which may one day come into focus, is that we recognize staff for their contributions, their losses, and their joys.  My cat died recently, and I was devastated to lose my long-time companion.  Instead of ignoring or belittling this loss, people expressed concern and verbally acknowledged it.  My boss bought me a card, and everyone signed it.

A few of us garden in a plot off the parking lot, share the vegetables, and instigate cooking contests.  We pick up food from the local food bank to give to those who need it, and we have celebratory parties with our clientele.  People of various races, colors, ability and disability, those of changing genders, share food together.

The effects of such an environment are disorienting if you’ve ever worked in a more formal office.  On the one hand, the lack of structure and accountability at our center elicits our insecurities, but it also allows us to find our own voice and our own compassion for ourselves and others.  I’ve had my share of struggles with the place, grappled with my own insecurities roaring up from the void, but slowly and surely, I’ve defined my own way of helping, and I’ve learned to be fully present for many an encounter with an array of unusual souls.

Like those with a psychic Iraqi war vet who attends my yoga class and describes vibrant images that arise for him during class.  With a woman with cerebral palsy who cannot talk but communicates worlds through her eyes and her expressions, aided by technology.  With several disabled children who grin widely when I walk in the room and settle down to a half hour of engaging play with iPads.  With the newly blind young man who lightly grasps my elbow as I guide him to his destination.

I will not work at this center forever, but for a time, as the world spins, the economy falters, the climate changes, and we continue to make and buy a plethora of electronic and plastic goods, I can feel the profundity in my own little world of our daily encounters, our care for one another, for the animals among us, and for our earthly sustenance.  In this environment among the forgotten and marginalized, I can find my center, my mindfulness, and I can remember that it is the small and human interactions that are the most precious and that it is the connection with the earth that is most integral to our life.  I know I am lucky to have a job that stirs such “memory.”  That reminds me it is the gentle in this human life that is truly most strong.


Self-sufficiency or community effort?

IMG_1646In a job interview this week I was asked about my philosophy on self-sufficiency programs.  The interviewer was referring to public aid.  I spoke without thinking based on assumptions I have held for years, and then I realized that my perspective has changed.  It is far more nuanced than it used to be.

My current job has shed much light on the subject, and life experience has made me wiser.   I still believe, as I told the interviewer, that society is healthier when it provides safety nets for the most vulnerable, and I am very conscious of vulnerability, having lost my physician father and my vibrant yoga teacher at young ages.  I don’t think a society that tosses people aside at the least infirmity is a society at all.

Working at a disability center has shown me another side to the whole issue of public aid.  I meet people who just cannot work because of illness or physical disability, and I meet others who experience a job loss, temporary illness, or divorce, who lose their ground and cannot regain it.  Time stretches on, they lose skills and confidence, and some never get back in the race.

Yet I am most struck by the “invisible disabilities.”  Actually, the term “disability” becomes meaningless because it seems one sees it everywhere.   Personality disorders like narcissism, for example, or a nervous temperament, or alienation stemming from abuse have a profound impact on a person’s work life.   Some people possess undefined cognitive issues that hinder them in the work place, problems they were able to compensate for when they are young, but which trip them up as they age.  Some people may even be affected by birth trauma in ways that are difficult to understand.

I work with people on the staff who have CP, quadraplegia, spina bifida, multiple sclerosis.    Some use a minimum amount of help and make the most of it, while others spend a fair amount of time soliciting and getting all they can.  Why is that?  Is it character?  Personality disorders?  Were some of us taken care of too much so we became overly dependent?  Are these issues even quantifiable or interpretable?  There is so much that is murky.  These days I wonder if that uncle who was a “ne’re do well” had cognitive processing issues that tripped him up.  Or if that college graduate who partied a lot and 15 years later is unemployed might not have experienced sexual or physical abuse and have post-traumatic stress disorder.   If that terribly shy person did not experience secure attachment with his mother and can’t get his feet on the ground.

While character and discipline are part of the discussion when it comes to work engagement, these other issues do exist, and an individual often becomes ashamed and defensive, or tells herself a story about how the world is unfair or how she is a “waste case.”  I’ve seen people who cheat, or lie, and that troubles me, but now I see how even those behaviors can come from a poor family that has used those strategies to survive.

I draw two conclusions on this subject of aid.   One is that hidden trauma can cause disordered thinking, excessive shyness or anger, or lack of confidence.  An individual cannot regulate her nervous system and develops an addiction.  My second conclusion is that discipline and integrity are as important as ever.  The people who come to work with us in our center are generally inclined to the expectation to be willing to learn new things, to change, to receive support and make the most of it.   We expect each other to be honest.

For some reason, public aid is a painful subject for me.  Probably because it appears that some of our social supports are being drawn away.  I have had my own work struggles, my own year of unemployment, and after working in a poorer community with people with disabilities, I have seen even more vulnerability.  Perhaps my discomfort stems from how deeply I believe the whole society is healthier when we provide help:  We cannot take social programs for granted, and yet I think we have done so.

These days the rich are getting richer, and the social aid systems seem antiquated and underfunded.  I think we have to start where we are and care for each other, build sustainable communities, find work for people who can do something no matter how small or easy.  I believe we people at the ground level will develop sustainable communities, if we consult our hearts.

In reading Yes! magazine, I came across a story about a Canadian man who suffered a severe neck injury and had a hard time finding a job that would accommodate his need for shorter shifts and frequent doctor appointments.  A non-profit agricultural operation hired him on flexible terms.  The organization provides work for many people who face barriers to employment.  It received loans and financing from a Canadian Credit Union that funnels a portion of its earnings to charitable giving and to building up the social economy in Canada.

This magazine details many such instances of co-operative ventures, of social economics, of businesses embracing low-income folks or those who have experienced life setbacks. We need to build a new social economy, a new social “safety net.”  It’s good to see the effort to help those in need is addressed by businesses, communities, and innovative programs, not just the government.  People working together are a big part of the solution.  They are the green shoots in the Spring of a cultural shift.

How do you think?

IMG_0886Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society.  When you trap people in a system of debt they can’t afford the time to think.  Tuition fee increases are a disciplinary technique, and by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalized the disciplinarian culture.  This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy. 

-Norm Chomsky

This quote stopped me cold.  It is just as relevant years after college as it is right after, and it applies to our work and financial lives years after college.  It makes me really ponder the influence of debt, or high expenses on how we think, how we live.

I am very fortunate by birth and family background that I do not have debt and can work in nonprofit organizations.  Every day I am struck by my upside-down job (unusual by most standards) and my great fortune to hike in the Rocky Mountains and hear my own thoughts.  I know lovely people who work in the healing arts, in nonprofits, and in carpentry who look wryly at the consumer economy, whether through circumstance or choice.  Though our income is limited, there is enough to live on and room for commerce of minds, hearts, and hands.  Energized with meaning, connection, and work to be done, these folks do not worry much about money.

My own job involves working with people who are visually impaired.  I do a lot of outreach and education, helping the motivated learn assistive technologies and cane travel.  At my center I also teach yoga for people with disabilities, develop communication materials, assist the director, troubleshoot computer problems, and handle a myriad of other tasks from taking out the recycling to setting up for events.

I encounter people from all walks of life.  An Iraq-war vet from the Louisiana bayou who is psychic.  Kids who are developmentally disabled and help out in our office once a week.  University students studying human services or special education who visit or intern.  People who have had strokes or heart attacks or who deal with multiple sclerosis.  People who have experienced healing and people who have not.  Liars and saints and people changing through community.

Here again I see provision for needs, whether it be through laws, food banks, Habitat for Humanity, grants, donations, volunteer services.  Yes frustrations, limitations, and inefficiency are present, but I also see people working together in advocacy groups, wellness classes, yoga.  And I see organizations collaborating, a willingness to find help and resources for folks in need.  There is less bureaucracy, less ego, less time spent posturing than there might be in other settings.

Most importantly, I see people change.  Coming to this community, an individual becomes less reliant on doctors, medications, social services, family members.  As they learn about managing their finances or health, find ways to work even if volunteering, and take part in activities, they begin to feel better and they develop a different conception of themselves.  They make do with the resources they have, make more connection, work, play, and laugh.  Whether they struggle with a mental illness or physical disability or chronic illness, they can begin to relate to the world as Mary or as Jim, rather than patient or client.

I see parallels with this model of support in my community of healers and freelancers.  We work together on solutions or simply share ideas.  We barter, simplify, grow food, start business and meetup groups.  We find ways to get what we need and to contribute.

It is when we get taken in by debt or fear (this happens to me fairly often) or “The System” that we cannot think.  We think we cannot afford to question, or to seek out better ways of doing things, and we do not have enough time to connect with others to develop our thoughts or find encouragement for our ability to effect change.  We are not as receptive to the beauty and possibility around us.

Chomsky’s words remind me of a poem that has been circling through my mind since college.  The poem surfaces to my consciousness at odd times, stopping and refocusing me, in the way I assume that voices speak to others imparting wisdom or pointing toward a new direction.

The World Is Too Much With Us

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

If we are feeling subject to a disciplinary culture, as Chomsky says, we are more concerned about obedience to an economy that some of us think is destructive.  I think we are here to live this life.  To feel our bodies, to move with joy, to engage with our hearts, to use our minds to create art, bridges, healing practices, good food, and communities.  It seems that we as humans won’t survive if the system continues as is, so we may as well take a leap and try some brand new things.

Wrestling with bulldogs

IMG_0945Two years ago, after a year of unemployment, I began a new job at a disability center in a dilapidated building.  That same week, another woman was hired.  We bonded in the rocky adjustment to cluttered offices and murkily defined jobs.  Our shared discomfort in landing in this neglected corner of the earth, along with the familiarity of her Catholic sense of social service to my Methodist upbringing, created for me a strange sense of destiny.

We cleaned out our spaces, working through piles of files and discarded junk, dusting and sterilizing.  Then we began to define our jobs.  Months into this process, conflict arose. Katie, a Christian who had worked in mental health, is committed to service and motivated to serve.  She’s social, outspoken, and driven to help people change.  I, on the other hand, a strong introvert fresh off a year at home alone and two decades of writing work, was uncertain I should be in human services at all.

Katie is 70 years old and a great grandmother.  Raised by various family members and nuns, she brought up five kids on her own, earned two degrees, and became director of senior services in a nearby county.  She’s used to fighting her way through the world.  I’m an avowed introvert, and I was reeling in the chaos.  Since neither of us was given guidance or feedback we felt uneasy about our work, and we clashed.  Katie tried to tell me how to do my job while I struggled mightily to create my boundaries in an environment where staff and clientele seemed ready to intrude wherever possible.  While Katie attacked her job with a vengeance, calling folks to see if they needed services, developing new programs, and organizing new activities, I tried to see if I could provide service to the organization and clientele in a way that I could sustain, behind the scenes.

I’d hear Katie cajoling, challenging, and encouraging others.  But she pushed me to do the same, and I resisted, wondering at times if she was right.  We squabbled a few times over how I should do my job or the wording of a flier.  Yet she learned to let me be, and I started to appreciate her strength and to find my own.  I enjoyed her colorful stories of exotic pets, encounters with police, and her husband’s ranching family.

Slowly, I became better at outreach for my program and found ways to contribute.  I made a new website, redesigned the newsletter,  set up a series of workshops.  I learned and taught others about assistive technology.

I was adjusting, and at the same time coming to see Katie as a bulldog—indomitable, resilient, energetic.  On the other hand it seemed she couldn’t slow down and listen, and I felt like I was always wrestling with her.  We traveled to other cities together for conferences, trainings, and outreach, meeting with farmers and ranchers disabled by work or age.   Crawling back into my hotel room after a long day of meetings and lunches with my cohort, I could breathe again.

On the most recent road trip with my friend, she chatted away, ready to direct until we established a pattern of cooperation.  This week we went to a senior fair together in a small plains town in Colorado.  We’d found new sympathy for each other on that road trip, and when she started insisting on how a client needed to quit smoking, I laughed and pretended to bang my head on the steering wheel.  She laughed too.

At the fair I had an epiphany.  Seated along the wall adjacent to us were three tables, one for a senior living residence, one for assisted living, the last for a funeral home.  Katie commented on how the booths represented the stages we all go through and then started talking about her plans for where to be buried and with whom.  She joked about her sister in law and brother saying she could be buried in a stack three high with them, but she responded she didn’t want to spend eternity in between them.  “Well, we won’t be doing anything!”, said her relative.  Then Katie turned to the woman in the table next to us and began a lively conversation.  Sharing her experience as a gerontologist and spiritual director and learning about the other woman’s love of working with seniors in assisted living, I felt privileged to learn about work that is not often acknowledged and about these stages of life at the other end.  Here were two elders themselves helping people take their last steps on the earth.

My own process of changing in this strange job, of softening and opening, of letting go of my previous definitions of myself, seemed suddenly tremendously fruitful.  I felt wizened and blessed, strengthened by schooling about the stages of life and the forgotten areas of this human experience.  And I again had the sense of fate in my connection with this woman.

Here’s why:  Though we were raised quite differently, have different personalities and spiritual practices, we are also of the same ilk, fighters who have come to unusual perspectives on healing and wellness through our own experiences.  Katie is a strong spiritual being from a background of abuse and poverty, riches gained and lost, now in tune with the reality of aging and death.  A student of psychotherapy, Emotions Anonymous, wellness training with wellness wheel, and spiritual gerontology, she has wisdom to share in a world bent on material gain, youth, and fitness.

My life has been more stable, but early acquaintance with illness through my dad’s work made me a questioner, and my experience in Quaker meetings, with yoga and meditation, with managing health issues through holistic medicine, with mental health counseling and body-oriented psychotherapy, have led me to a perspective much like my coworker’s. We have the same sense of wellness as involving spiritual, emotional, and physical elements, of being a lifelong process of learning and letting go.

In this relationship, over time, our spirituality, our life struggles, and our experience with uncertain positions, led inevitably to a bond. So often, different languages, backgrounds, personalities, or fear and the need for clearly defined beliefs create barriers between us humans.  In this case, I now have a strong sense of crazy adventure and of a chance meeting of fellow travelers on the road, perhaps a cliché, but an apt one.

On that outing to the senior fair, I saw beyond the grind of a job into the precious encounter with the divine and a woman full of fire and spirit.  I felt I understood the biblical parable of Jacob wrestling with an angel.   I really thought I was wrestling with this bulldog, but it was definitely an angel, both the job itself and this bundle of love and courage that is Katie.

Happy or normal?

IMG_0920I know now, after fifty years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/returning never stops.  The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.

That’s Jeannette Winterson, in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? She is talking about her long-time fascination with the Grail stories and Perceval’s “twenty years wandering in the woods, looking for the thing that he found, that was given to him, that seemed so easy, that was not.”

Winterson’s book is a memoir.  Adopted at the age of six weeks, she has explored issues of identity through reading and writing, an endeavor I identify with strongly.  Her book elicits thoughts and memories for me related to my worklife, and this message in the grail stories reassures me as it did Winterson.  I remember that the same message comes through in The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong, another favorite of mine whose title is a reference to this process of departing and returning.

At one point in my life I worked for a magazine on a staff of creative writers as well as with people revisioning psychology, looking at the field’s intersection with spirituality.  Already a reader of Carl Jung, an observer of my dreams, and a student of Taoism, I couldn’t believe my fortune in landing this job.  The staff, which was young and inquisitive, attended plays and concerts after work, had stimulating conversations over lunch.  I was living my dream life.  Then the magazine folded, and most of us were faced with the prospect of reentering a more utilitarian, mechanistic work world.  Like Perceval, I’ve been trying to find my way back for a long time, and I haven’t made it, though I’ve found sure found some nuts and berries along the way.

Like teaching yoga and studying ayurveda.  Exposure to some incredible teachers and experiences through yoga.  Writing articles on Feldenkrais, Continuum, and qigong.  Studying Hakomi, or body-oriented psychotherapy.  Working for an herbalist and making tinctures from freshly harvested herbs.

Like living in a small town in Colorado and hiking in the mountains.  Working at a bookstore, meeting folks in the disability world.

Finding berries in the form of books and ideas from novels of all kinds to Kerouac to American history, to Buddhist psychology to yoga to Jung, Wendell Berry to David Orr and Terry Tempest Williams.

Work has been spotty, but I have grown, and I’ve had an incredible education.  I am ready to plug into a community, a project, an organization working for change in healthcare and education.  Think Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal.  The Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota, Positive Futures Network, the Center for Mind-body Medicine.

Where do I come out?  Winterson writes that the “stories of loss, of loyalty, of failure, of recognition of second chances” related to the Grail continue to inform her life.  Right now they inspire me, for I have experienced loss of good and connected jobs.  I have remained true to my mission in many ways, but I have also failed by becoming lost in fear or alienation, but I am still here, and I recognize the second chance.  I come back to writing, yoga, and integrative medicine.  My “Perceval” question to the Parker Palmers, the James Gordons, the editors of Yes! magazine, is, can I work with you?

Until I get it right

IMG_0820You know the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray gets to repeat one particular day until he changes his degenerate ways and turns instead to educating himself and helping others?  I feel like I’m having that experience at work in a disability center, though I am not sure what the end result should be.  The thing though, is that each day I feel like my slate from the day before has been erased.  I walk in with an opportunity to write something brand new on it.

What creates this type of environment?  How can it be that we get to try again, and again?  Is it that disability and illness are such great levelers that whatever warts we exhibited the day before are sloughed off?  Is it that the staff members have such good hearts that they forgive very easily?  Is it that each of us is humbled by our own foibles, or that we don’t have the energy to over-react to conflicts?  We are not a paragon of character:  Or are we?  Nah, I don’t think so . . . I think we have good hearts, and I think the visible suffering and injury we see put things in perspective.

I have to say that on the other hand, there are people who have become disgruntled and left.  Or people who don’t trust or like each other.  But from where I stand, and in relating to people whom I sometimes get short with, I am given multiple opportunities to try again, to get my feet under me and encounter a coworker afresh, exhibiting more patience, more kindness.   I repeat the scenario time after time, experiencing it on good days or bad, at times when my feet are firmly underneath me and times when they aren’t.  I learn from my previous mistakes, and when in a better mood, I realize I don’t need to feel quite so threatened by a tricky encounter.

Take for example my interactions with two staff members who are on the needy side, who attempt to rope others in to take care of them or do their jobs.  They appear to me to take advantage of others, to manipulate them into doing things for them that they can do themselves.  My first response is to avoid them, and yet I continue to encounter the same experience with them and play out different responses.  I learn to be kind but to tell them I am not available to do their task.  I have grown to like these folks now that my boundaries are established, and I am grateful for the lesson I have learned.

Is this continual situation at work dysfunction to eliminate or an opportunity to learn?  One could argue for the former, particularly in other workplaces, but in this environment of disability services, things are turned upside down, and people have much more latitude for behavioral issues.  And room to focus on one’s spirit.

All of us on the staff are older, have seen some hard knocks.   We know when to back off.  We know when to laugh.  And we know when to tell someone they are crossing a line.   We value the casual, relaxed environment we work in and the autonomy we have.  And we value serving others.  One thing I can say is, if life is a game, if all this earthly living is an illusion as the Buddhists say, this place teaches me how to play, how to be, and how to embrace my imperfection.  It is gentle enough that in it I remember life really is a game, that we are just passing through.  And I realize that an environment that makes space for this awareness is quite unusual:  It is no small feat to create it.  Within this little world I often think of Jesus’ statement, “The meek shall inherit the earth.”  And I wonder, what really is important in our work days?

Upside down and inside out

In an independent living center, an organization serving people with disabilities, almost every characteristic of a workplace is inverted.  What do I mean?  I mean that hierarchies, workflow, work standards, the value of the individual, definitions of jobs, and even socializing together are virtually the opposite of what they might be in another nonprofit organization, let alone a corporation.

At least half of the employees must be people with disabilities, and it seems those without physical issues are iconoclastic or coming from a “down-and-out place,” just by nature of the organization.  An employee with a tracheotomy tube struggles to communicate, a woman with osteoarthritis is in pain much of the time and works very slowly.  Someone with MS deals with cognitive issues stemming from the disorder, others are erratic from the ups and downs of fibromyalgia or recovery from divorce.  Yet we are productive, the best kind of crew to serve others with disabilities who come in from the streets struggling financially, vocationally, physically, in myriad ways.

Whereas most work places exist to create products or services, we exist to help people with disabilities adjust to their situations and society, to find resources, inclusion, connection, work—all things vital to human beings.  Sure, a mental health center has a similar mission, but we have a more fluid, community-like approach.   We create an environment that is welcoming, a home-base for getting one’s feet under herself.

In an independent living center, people who are not good at their jobs are given many tries, many months to get it right.  People come in off the street who are destructive, or recently out of jail, are given support to try again.  People who don’t fit in more rigid work environments are given a chance to work in a more flexible, accepting place.   In the center where I work there is little supervision, so we really do find our own way, molding our own jobs and serving in ways that we are most suited to, whether that be as caseworker or bookkeeper, educator or fundraiser,   then we back each other up and take on different roles as needed.

I am struck by the unusual circumstance of being in a community within the disability community within the workplace.  Like a family, we have real dysfunction.  But we go much farther to accommodate “limitations” and personality quirks.  We have people from all walks of life come through our doors, which means we are exposed to people off the streets and some danger, though providing a welcome diminishes the likelihood of harm.

What I find compelling is this juxtaposition with the norms of the mainstream workplace, and what I find intriguing is the display of characters and character.  For example, I have been challenged to change and serve in new ways, while at the same time I have come to greater acceptance of some of my introversion.  I have been exposed to people who are radically different from me in socioeconomic status, educational background, race, and physical capacity and yet found a common ground with them.  I have seen people find new strengths and purpose or acceptance of limitation.  I have heard stories of surviving, coping, and overcoming that happen in spite of the systems put in place to help and stories of people aided immensely by those systems once we helped them use the services more effectively.

When I sit down with my yoga group on Tuesday afternoons, I see a group of people willing to try something new, be changed, challenge their previous experience, grow stronger and more resilient.  There are definitely other jobs where such things happen, but I don’t think there are other workplaces quite as quirky, quite as frustrating and lovely at the same time.

We are very human in this environment.  Under the uncertainty, the stress, the crises people find themselves in we find our natural compassion, our ability to stand up for what is right.  This week my coworker gave a man hell for the dangerous situation he and his relatives exposed his niece to.  I did an intake with an addict whose young daughter was taken away by child protective services.  I heard a success story of a woman getting accommodations from the university to get her PhD.  We helped, or at least provided a sympathetic ear, to all these folks, while at the same time grappling with our own flawed humanity and struggles.  People stripped down, honest, sometimes floundering and sometimes shining, that’s what you find in an independent living center.

Getting what you need

In my yoga class for people with disabilities are two people from Louisiana who have experienced huge setbacks.  Both are black, and both are gracious travelers through different worlds and cultures.  Both are open hearted and brave.

What strikes me most in both their cases is their fluidity.  They travel in social circles that vary markedly from one another; one attends a white Presbyterian church and the other a Jewish synagogue, and both attend a variety of social events in town.   They interact easily with people from all walks of life, respecting the individuals they meet and often finding commonalities with them.

Both actively seek connection, involvement and the resources they need to overcome challenges and to thrive.  One, I’ll call her Sandra, experienced a stroke in her late thirties that took the vision in one eye and dramatically slowed her graduate school career, almost derailing it.  The other, Ray, was profoundly wounded in Iraq and has had to confront a long and complex road to physical and emotional healing and to regain the ability to walk.

Sandra has hit many an obstacle in getting accommodations for finishing her PhD.  The student disabilities office did not understand how to help her, and tried to extend the wrong assistance.  Uninformed of the other resources in the community for a long time, she floundered and had to ask for extensions to meeting her degree requirements three times, the third of which is under contention.  In the meantime, she has found a mentor in the community, a disabled psychologist, who is helping her manage the system.  She has connected with the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which performed assessments on her needs for learning and working then purchased the equipment that assists her.  Sandra and her mentor have met with the university administrators and disability office to advocate for more time to finish her education.

Ray too has had a grueling physical recovery with many setbacks.  Having waited 24 hours on the field for help after he was hit with shrapnel from a bomb, he had wounds in his legs that would not heal, then blood clots, seizures that kept him from working or driving, and other physical and emotional scars.   He’s had multiple surgeries, many hours in the wound clinic and hyperbaric chamber, worked with physical therapists.  He has slowly improved, become more active socially and physically, and recently began to substitute teach.

Sandra and Ray come to yoga at our center as well as social gatherings.  Wanting to make the most of their lives, they never complain.  And while Sandra is seeking to help other disabled students with her experience, Ray is working as a substitute teacher and speaking to veterans about disability with hopes of working full-time as a teacher in the coming year.

Neither of these strong souls balk at the idea asking for help.  Instead, they count themselves as part of the human race, with a right to connect with others, ask for what they need, and find their way to serve.  While I might vacillate, sometimes wondering if I’m worthy of someone’s help, they walk forward and meet others, ask questions, assert themselves to get what they need and to reach their potential.  They have big hearts and are fully here, engaged in the life of their community, encountering other individuals with openness and love.  They are my heroes.

Though I am currently able bodied, I know my own disabilities of habit and fear, and I identify with this process of taking our places within the human community, of claiming our right to help, and of finding our way to contribute.  In my book, the “economy” involving exchange of talent, heart, and skill, as well as the processes of learning and growing, seem just what make our lives worth living.

Ralph and company

The disability center where I work exists in a tight-knit community, and my job provides me an opportunity to work with various organizations.  I regularly walk to the senior center, retirement communities, the university, or the printer.   Many area restaurant managers and retailers contribute in our annual fundraiser to raise money for services to people with disabilities, and I have communicated with them at certain times of the year.  In the cross-over of efforts and sharing of referrals in this community, I’ve come to know some very good people.

Since I see folks regularly, I learn a little bit about them.  For example, I consult our printer, Ralph, on our newsletter and marketing needs and have slowly developed a relationship with him.  When I visit his business to pick up projects, he greets me personally and we chat.  By coincidence, Ralph has a disability himself–cerebral palsy.  He has overcome a lot, including an absent, alcoholic father and poverty in addition to his disability.  In spite of these things he has found his way in life and work.  A few weeks ago, Ralph told me a story that stayed with me on many levels, partly because it relates to the mission of my organization.

Ralph married a woman with three children, and her youngest happens to have cerebral palsy like her stepdad.   This youngest daughter was an infant when Ralph married her mother, and the wife’s parents chose to blame him for the granddaughter’s disability despite the fact that he wasn’t the biological father.  Though hurt and offended, Ralph stuck it out and became a devoted husband and stepfather.

Local doctors, whether through lack of knowledge or some other reason, told the couple there was nothing to be done for little Trisha and that she would never be able to walk independently.  Again Ralph ignored the pronouncement of others, and this time he stepped in where the medical system fell short.

Since there was no recommendation of therapy and few resources for the financially strapped family, he began to work with Trisha.  He held her up by her belly while she moved her arms and legs about.  He held her middle and set her hands and knees to the floor as she oriented and developed strength.  As often as he could he moved her limbs, massaged them, helped her sit and develop core muscles.  When she grew older he designed some leg braces for her and helped her to walk with their assistance.  Now she is eight, and she can walk without aids.

While my organization helps people use resources and maintain independence despite their disabilities, Ralph has accomplished a great deal on his own.  He learned the printing business and is now running his own company.  He is raising three children and doing his own brand of physical therapy with his stepdaughter.  He has used his intuition, and he has experimented.  He has been loyal to himself and his family, and he supports his community with good service.

He’s a humble fellow, without a college degree, but he’s a smart man, a man who doesn’t always accept what the doctors tell him, who believes in himself, who taps into his own resources, intuition, and ability to heal.   He is a great example of what my organization was created to foster—resilience, connection to inner and outer resources, and involvement in community.  He consulted his own wisdom and used his instincts in helping his stepdaughter, and he has tapped into some resilience and intuitive healing wisdom.

I am fortunate that my job provides an experience of old-fashioned community and the individual business-owner within it.  Ralph’s story teaches me that all of us can choose how to react to things and what perspective we take.  It also reminds me that some of our fancy higher education, medical technology, and corporate power are not of much use without the involvement of a thinking mind-body and engaged heart.  Encountering people like him shows me the value of my humble little position in disability services.  Both Ralph and I live and work in a model one would call alternative, in the best sense of the word.

The next step

On February 2, I celebrated my year anniversary at my current job at the disability center.  I am proud of having survived, and proud of having opened up to new tasks, new experiences, new perspectives.  And I’m ready to move on.

It’s true.  This year has been an amazing one for which I will be forever grateful.  I am now blind to physical disability, seeing people rather than wheelchairs.  I am well-schooled in the fact that appearances mean little, having been surprised by people’s resilience, love, tenacity, and wisdom, no matter what their circumstance or education level.  I have taught yoga to people who respond to the mindfulness and who wake up in their bodies, even though those bodies are injured.  And I have seen community at work in a loving way.  Best of all, I’ve seen societal values turned on their head:  There is no pretension here, where we are all equal, all struggling, all misfits in our way.  We cannot and do not pretend or posture or hide behind status.

At the same time, my mind is not on the government program I am supposed to oversee.  I am restless:  I am clear that I need to write and to teach.

On my anniversary day, I sat at lunch on a park bench in the sun, thinking of how sometimes opportunities fall in our laps, and how ready I am to more fully engage with work, how ready I am to teach and write about new models of health and healing.  Later that evening I received an email inviting me to apply for a position teaching holistic health classes at a community college:  I blinked and rubbed my eyes to make sure it was real.

Perhaps that higher power is guiding, is interacting with me.  In this work life, I seek to be open to presence, to letting go of my ego while honoring my temperament and my heart’s desire.  I am aware of my ability to deceive myself or simply to overanalyze, and I practice prayer and meditation to find my way.

Sometimes I feel a source of support:  It feel as though the spheres are aligning, and I am deeply grateful.  I believe we are one with the earth and with each other and that we need to listen for our true paths if we are to survive.  God or goddess, gaia or universe:  It speaks to us and we must choose whether or not we will listen.

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