“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.


The trouble with Dr. Oz?

IMG_1356The New Yorker is my favorite magazine.  Every once in awhile, though, I encounter an article that really makes me scratch my head:  Actually a couple of these have been written by Michael Specter, including his recent “The Operator,” subtitle (in the contents), “The Trouble with Doctor Oz,” February 4, 2013.  (Specter is also the Author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.)

I think Specter, along with some other Oz critics, is right to question the unbridled and hyped up promotion of herbs or foods, like raspberry ketones to burn fat, or green coffee beans for weight-loss, or red palm oil for Alzheimer’s disease, though I do think its helpful to bring attention to these things:  In my mind the hype and overemphasis is problem.

On the other hand, I strongly part ways with Specter when it comes to Oz’s showcasing of some “alternative” approaches to healing.  I am like Oz in not needing scientific proof that these approaches work.  If one thinks physicians should stick within the scientific, Specter’s argument is understandable.  But medicine is also an art.  In addition, science has shown us that sometimes placebos work as treatment.  Specter says that Oz’s practice of mixing “sensible” and scientifically proven information with unproven information is hard to understand—IS IT?  Science, after all, is sometimes used in specious ways to promote pharmaceutical drugs.

These are old questions representing two camps, the Western scientific and Eastern, the rationalist and the mystic, the chemical and surgical with the natural (the latter has not been studied as extensively).  Here’s where I come from.  The two major health conditions that have affected my wellbeing have been untreatable by modern medicine.  If they progress to cancer or blindness or an autoimmune condition, medicine will have an “answer” or treatment, but I have used alternative methods to reverse or stop the problem in their tracks.  These modalities, ayurveda, acupuncture, and herbal medicine, were off the radar of modern medicine, and science would not have given me reinforcement for pursuing them.

My experiences with keratoconus, an eye disorder, and candida/gluten intolerance, a digestive disorder, taught me how to address illness from a system, organic, natural, and energetic  angle.   Arresting of the keratoconus and resolving the candida issue involved processes that took quite a long time and a commitment to my health at emotional, spiritual, physical, social, and environmental levels.  I may not have healed had I not meditated, prayed, dropped unhealthy friendships, actually adjusted my way of exercising to a more gentle one focused on yoga and walking outdoors in the sunshine.   Without all these angles of approach, I would have become sicker and repeatedly visited my physician, who could only have given me temporary measures and helped me manage chronic illness.

Western science and medicine exist in one realm while some of the healing arts tap into another.  We have to acknowledge the limitations of our mechanistic medical sciences, to realize there is a realm of healing, of energy, that we do not understand with our rational minds.  We need a practice of mindfulness, of openness, of listening to the body, emotions, spirit, and chi, to old traumas and the need for radical self-care on all these levels.

This approach is not easy.  It requires time, energy, and an ability to go through upheaval and reorientation.  It demands an openness to uncertainty and to life changes.  It means loosening dependence on the rational, analytical intellect and paying attention to the body and its sensations.  I think the process also leads to examination of our culture, to a reengagement with our selves, and to a new relationship with the fruits of the earth, the herbs and natural foods. Not many of us will engage in such a process, particularly if we are working hard and are engaged with a profession of status, busy in our day-to-day lives.  It is easier to turn instead to the scientific, the prescription, the surgery.  Valid too, but sometimes not enough.

Specter quotes Oz:  “All I’m trying to do is put a couple of road signs out there.  I sit on that set every day, and that is what I am focusing on.  The road signs.”  Oz says he wants to erase barriers between patients and medicine, wants to raise issues that remain undiscussed, wants to walk the line that divides conventional medicine and alternative cures.   I am glad for his efforts.

Specter also says of Oz, “He describes modern medicine as a “civil war” waged between conventional physicians and those who are open to alternative cures for maladies ranging from anxiety to cancer; he considers it his mission to walk the line that divides them.  But more often his show seems to erase that line completely, with results that may be less benign than Oz and his many viewers realize.”

I tend to think the marriage of pharmaceutical companies and medicine is also less benign than many realize.  I for one think that Oz is doing important work inhabiting that zone between medicine and holistic health, between science and energy healing.  Many of us are grateful that he’s talking about these things, engaging with people out there seeking healing.  Medicine does not have all of the answers, and we need people like Oz to ask the questions and to present other sides so we might actively engage in our own healing in ways that involve our bodies, minds, and spirits.  I believe we need just such a wizard to catalyze a transformation.

My yoga career as a template

child pose eliza snow istockHave you had a lot of satisfaction in your career?  A sense of mastery?  The ability to make things happen?  Those are questions I wonder about, for myself and others.  Mostly because I have not found such attributes in abundance, at least not in my office jobs.  But I did experience them as a yoga teacher.

If you are imagining me as that advanced student, as master teacher demonstrating extra-advanced poses in my trendy yoga wear, let that picture go.  It’s not applicable.  Here is the real story:  I ordered a couple of half-price yoga pants online, incorporated some comfy tie dye t-shirts, and went looking for gigs.  I applied to various institutions, a recreation center, the local hospital, a corporation, and a drug court.  I was inflexible, shy, and naïve about yoga.  But I loved it and had to do it.

Teaching was excruciating for me for several years.  Sitting before a group of people and conveying something I barely understood was uncomfortable to say the least.   But darn if it wasn’t compelling, and I listened to feedback and learned.  I felt my way through, literally, in my body.  In this job I could move, demonstrate, engage physically, mentally, and spiritually.  At the same time, my yoga teacher told me that people would just be grateful to be led through a class, and her comment helped me relax.

I developed a sense of myself and a sense of my vocation as a yoga teacher.  I saw ways to integrate yoga into institutions, and I became a good promoter.  I felt motivated from within, energized by my work.  As I ventured into various organizations, I was not discouraged that administrators knew little about yoga, instead I became a translator between the institution and the practice, the fitness world and the mindfulness world.

About eight years in I became really good at teaching yoga, something I attribute to having lived and absorbed it and to the inspiration of a teacher who taught me what I most needed to learn.   From her I learned that yoga was more about undoing patterns and waking up, and I was able to guide people through that process.  For me, it was about educating the body, mind, and soul.

In my career I learned many skills, like teaching methods, communication, promotion, translation, conveying material through multiple modalities.  I used many of my strengths and learned to work better with my weaknesses.

In time I changed and began to explore the idea of educating about integrative medicine.  For a while I lost my bearings.  Yoga didn’t seem like a resume building skill, and my other skills had faded into the background.  Forgetting about the success I’d had and the many folks who expressed gratitude for my classes, I felt “unmarketable.”

And yet it is my experience with yoga that is coming back to me now and informing me in a visceral way.  I realize that yoga has taught me what was most important in my overall career.  I remember that feeling of vocation, of commitment, of mission, and I remember the willingness to barrel ahead even though I had little experience in a field.  I know that I can come up with my own proposals, contact folks who might need my skills and knowledge, translate my heart-felt sense of contributing to my stress-ridden society.

I sense the fertile ground available to me and my opportunity to create something new.  And I continue to do my own yoga and meditation practice so that deeper wisdom and steadiness might accompany me on the path.

Magical connections occur, a sense of possibility surfaces.  I feel my muscles, my conviction, my confidence in my ability and my right to assert myself in the world and offer what I’ve got.  If I do not fit in a particular job, that’s okay, I still have my mission, my contribution to make, work to do, and spiritual lessons to learn.

To sum it up, yoga gave me a sense of myself (this being who knows the connection to mind and body), it gave me some inner knowing and some muscle, and it gave me a bridge to the medical and mental health realms which are so in need of change.  It provided me with connections to individuals that educated and supported me, and it gave me a meaningful role in my community.  When I feel like there is a hole in my “career” experience, I remember how satisfied I was, how much I grew, and how much I gave.  I know I built new bridges, and I know I provided something there, under the radar of the institutions, that woke people up a little.  If not to spiritual or physical mastery, to just knowing their bodies a bit better, knowing how to move more easily, knowing how to be embodied on the earth for this short time we’re given.

When I was a yoga student with the right teacher, I felt like I was getting the single most important education of my life.  I hope some of my students felt that way, and I hope I don’t forget what I learned.

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?

Clash of cultures

What motivates us to work? We know from an early age that we have to work as adults, and we find our way into jobs one way or another, some through years of education and some not.  How much time do we really spend thinking about it?

Many of us don’t get to know ourselves, or have the opportunity to try out numerous jobs, before we really need to “make a living.”  We choose a job, or a field, and we enter an enculturation process either in school or in the workplace.  The culture we absorb becomes a motivation itself:  We learn a vocabulary, way of thinking, norms, even habits of thinking, often without realizing it or taking time to reflect.  Some may relish the process and enjoy having a niche, others may experience a bit of unease, a sense of something missing depending on the fit with the culture.

Some professions, such as medicine or social services, possess a strong culture, one the employee has to embrace to some extent to excel in the field.  My father said medical school was like boot camp, a challenging experience in which his own ego and perspective were subordinated to the process of becoming a doctor.  He worked so hard for so long, was sometimes belittled, and he became one with his role, demonstrating decisiveness and as much clarity as possible to treat illness and perform surgery in a capable way.

Many of us are unknowingly brainwashed by a worldview, unaware of the underpinnings and influences forming that perspective, not possessing the tools with which to question or examine.  For some darn reason, not completely known to me, I have stood on the outside and asked questions.  While I had an interest in psychology in college, studying it raised more questions than it answered, so I asked my favorite professor to recommend books on the history of the field, because studying it made me uncomfortable, and I wondered why.

I think we need to stay alert, to ask questions as we learn a field and after we are in it.  To develop our own perceptions and to participate in ongoing inquiry with peers and supervisors.  But generally we are not encouraged to follow our hunches, to turn inside, to question, or even to dialogue with others in our fields.  We instead become absorbed into the work, the money, starting a family, building security for that family and ourselves.  But I believe there is a place for curiosity.

I have long conversations with a friend who teaches a contemplative education course at a university and is a sometime psychotherapist herself.  She teaches in a scholars’ program populated by pre-med students, future scientists and engineers, future writers.  She encourages the students to examine their assumptions, to consider their personal relationship to the subjects they study, to explore the underpinnings and influences on the professions they are considering entering.  Some of the students are resistant to her proddings in this class, at least at first.  The pre-med student is a bright, busy, focused fellow, or gal, who usually embraces a belief in the medical model, says my friend.  She does not ask them to let go of that belief, only to be circumspect, and many find themselves immensely grateful for the process of internal and philosophical inquiry she guides them through.  While some see no use for the process, others tell my friend they will go to med school as more sensitive, well-rounded humans.

My friend herself is examining the mental health field, from psychoanalysis to psychopharmacology, as a consumer, professional, and researcher.  She has experienced ill effects from medications and explored alternatives from re-attachment to ayurvedic herbs and diets to yoga and dance.  You could say she is a renegade academic and psychotherapist.

A person awake to her own emotions, adventurous in her intellectual pursuits, and brave enough to ask questions, is a different kind of professional.  Rather than immersing herself in a culture and system of thought, she remains a sensitive individual with an ability to respond to situations from within her self.

The book, The Spirit Catches you and You Fall Down, is about the clash of the Hmong people’s needs and beliefs with that of the Western medical system.  It is about the damage that can occur when two strong belief systems meet.  I was struck by a story in the book about a young Western enthnographer and fan of improvisational theater who is able to appreciate and understand the Hmong peoples’ perspective on illness and their resistance to the imposition of Western ways upon them.  He learns about them and their beliefs and is able to encourage them to get immunizations for their pets through staging a theatrical parade.

What made him sensitive to these people, capable of understanding their perspective?  Was he less enamored of the Western view he was born into?  Was he secure enough in himself to open his mind?

I have been immersed in this very process throughout my life:  I studied psychology but wanted to know where it came from, I was interested in medicine but had the mind and heart of an anthropologist.  I’m not sure why I am like this.  I think it may be feeling close to nature most of my life, through listening to old-time music as a young child and driving through inner-city DC with my dad on his way to work, through reading black authors from off my parents’ bookshelves.  I knew there were other ways of thinking about things than mine, other cultures and races, varied spiritual paths.

My role is that of an amateur ethnographer, a student of work cultures.  I make my living as a yoga teacher and writer, and I work various part-time jobs along the way.  It is a grand adventure, and I am grateful to share it with friends like my university teacher buddy.   This is my enduring question:  Can we not work from our authentic selves in ways that make sense to us and are healing to the world?  We must let the world change us, but sometimes we need to change it.

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.

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.

Service bookkeeper style

Both my parents were in healthcare professions, and my father in particular exhorted us kids to do work that serves others.  He found much meaning in his work as a pediatric neurosurgeon, and he was a Christian as well as a community volunteer. Not only did he help people in pain; he gave to the church and community—his time, his money, his energy.

Many a night, after a day of working with children with brain tumors or spina bifida, Dad stayed up late reading C.S. Lewis, Faulkner, or Walker Percy.  He’d certainly grappled with questions of suffering, meaning, and how to live one’s days.   As the oldest child, I noticed his behavior, heard his musings, absorbed his admonitions.  My mother was a physical therapist who worked with disabled children and sometimes brought them home to give their parents a respite.  Her work too touched me by introducing me to people with congenital disorders that made it hard for them to function.

I sensed a gravity in my parents’ dedication to help, and Dad’s advice sunk in deep.  I took it seriously and tried to apply it as an adult.  Truly the work that has drawn me the most has been introverted:  writing, layout, thinking, learning, yoga.  But I studied psychology and got a master’s in psychology, and I’ve tried to become a therapist several different time.  Instead I found myself more suited to writing about mental health, and I continue to gravitate back toward editorial work and health education.

Just recently I aborted my third (and last I hope) attempt to be a therapist.  I did some freelance writing, and then I landed a job in a disability service organization.  Now I help people with spina bifida and traumatic brain injury just as my parents did.  Man, I wonder, how did I get here?  The universe really does interact with us on our path, and this example is just one more affirmation of that truth for me.  I do work with people now, but I spend more of my time doing background work:  producing a newsletter, maintaining a website, rewriting forms.   I like the background.

In a way this position lets me blend the best of both social service and communications.  And secondly, I feel it has taught me that there are many ways to serve.  We serve ourselves better by honoring our natures.  I become unhappy, burdened, and ineffectual as a “therapist,” while I am gentler and more giving as a “communications professional.”   When we honor ourselves, we can also serve our coworkers and our communities in a myriad of ways, from planning events, to keeping membership databases, to providing a clean building for people to meet in.

My coworkers have served me, and I them.  Every morning I see the bookkeeper when I first arrive.  She calls me honey and asks how I am, and a part of me basks in her kind words.  Once a week she bakes zucchini bread or some other treat to go with morning coffee.  She makes coffee for everyone, and when she is caught up with work, she comes around and asks if she can help the rest of us.  No one will offer her a Nobel prize, and yet she is providing kindness, encouragement, and help to others every day.

The managers at work have served the staff by seeking to help people to fit, to use their strengths and be happy at work.  They respect others, and there is good will and a spirit of experimentation.  When staff can be themselves, do what they are most able to, and given room to make mistakes, they thrive.

We at work have started new things like a yoga class and life-enrichment class that involves stress reduction and nutrition.  We redesigned the website.  And we’ve brought our experience and abilities forth to serve others; several of us have brought holistic perspectives into our daily living skills training.  Managers have redesigned positions for someone whose disability or personality make it necessary.  In this setting and in others, I’ve found that honoring ourselves and others is the most basic kind of service.

As for me, my experience in this disability organization has brought me full circle.  I am in the “family business” and yet I am able to serve myself by using my strengths, by honoring my temperament, and by being present in my interactions, alive to the moment, at least some of the time.  Instead of entering into and entraining in a profession that did not suit me, I am growing into my abilities and learning to leave my “baggage” behind when encountering others.

On my own time, I can be found hiking with my partner, writing, meditating, or practicing yoga.  These more solitary pursuits suit me well and provide fuel for the social interaction at work. Just like the bookkeeper, I serve from within my own niche; my chosen lifestyle and profession: I don’t need to become a social worker.   Thank you, Dad, for your direction; I have taken it and made it my own.

Menagerie of misfits

“Welcome to the menagerie of misfits.”  I paused.  Whoa.  After 10 months of unemployment I had landed a 30-hour a week job in an unfamiliar field, town, and environment.  Three months in, my coworker said this odd thing to me.  Feeling like a misfit throughout my life, I felt strange hearing her say this; it felt like a welcoming, but I also felt alert, as though I had entered dangerous territory.  Had I landed on another planet?  Who were these other misfits?  What did it all mean?

My worklife has been nothing if not a wild ride.  From youth counselor to journalist, from bookstore clerk, freelance writer, to yoga teacher, I have tested myself, discovered some truths about work and life, and contributed something from within.  But after those 10 months feeling like I was in a cave (with wonderful explorations into yoga, Feldenkrais, stream-of-consciousness writing, and barefoot running), I was offered this job as a program coordinator at an independent living center.  The model of independent living comes from the civil rights movement and was started in the 1970s in Berkeley, California.

Me?  I had not even heard of such an organization.  I always craved freedom and flexibility, and here they were in abundance.  I had never done anything like my job (working with the visually impaired, conducting seminars, doing educational presentations).  The reason I was drawn to the job was that it involved health education and an opportunity to test out more of a community and peer support model for folks with mental and physical “disabilities.”

It was a hard adjustment:  I had followed my own rhythms for many years, and particularly in the previous months.  I’d explored holistic medicine, earned a scholarship to study at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, learned about yoga for disability and for illness.  Going into the “real world,” an office job, was uncomfortable, to say the least.  And yet dress was casual, and I set my own hours, leaving time for yoga and writing.   Most of my coworkers were cool, idiosyncratic characters, from the musicians who hear a different drummer, to a writer Vista worker, an energy healer and multi-cultural chef, a 70-year-old woman who challenges existing thinking about aging with animated conversation everywhere she goes.

Even given these appealing elements, the environment was a stretch for me.  There were more people to encounter, with many needs, and not as many boundaries as I was used to.  The position called for more public exposure.  I felt terribly uncomfortable, given that I am used to introverted work.  Working with people was hard, organizing seminars was a strain.  I felt as if once again I did not fit.  At the same time, I learned that others came into their jobs there after breakdowns of various sorts, and this concept of “disability” really did fit us all, at least at some time in our lives when we were too broken down physically or emotionally, at a crossroads, or simply shy or socially maladapted.

The beauty in the environment kept surfacing:  Now I observe that people, whether staff members or clients, are accepted at face value, offered a place in a community, a helping hand, or just information. With a little support, a bit of community, and respect, you can fashion a new life for yourself.   You find your way to work, to contribute.  Energy is not wasted on feeling insecure or left out.  For me, having a shitzu puppy around to greet me in the mornings, laughing with others, trying new tasks and behaviors, and learning the stories of my coworkers with severe disabilities, opened me up.  The environment was flexible and gentle enough that I could test out new duties and capacities like speaking in public and leading support groups.  I could feel into the spiritual journey and task of opening, participating, loving.

When it comes down to it, you could say the organization itself is a misfit.  It isn’t part of the medical or mental health model.   The staff and board must consist of at least 51 percent people with disabilities, and the idea is that all work together to promote disability rights and individual ability to live as one likes.  People I meet with quadraplegia and cerebral palsy and spina bifida have taught me we can be healthy even under trying physical circumstances.  The model is flexible and adaptable to communities and individuals:  Together people find what works, without prescription or hierarchical processes.

After  working in such an environment, I do not feel like a misfit there or anywhere.  I have enjoyed the weird and wonderful world of this quirky Colorado town, this organizational model, the coworkers and clientele.  I have found a way to serve and be involved in community.  There is so much respect in this environment for all of us and our quirks, a bent from management to make the environment work for employees as well as clientele, that issues of misfit and abnormal” are irrelevant.  Now that is something to ponder.

Free for all

My current work environment is a “free for all.” Employees are free to create their own job, free to use their colleagues as they like (given they assent), free to set their hours and to choose how to use them, free to take a break when they need to. Dress code is casual, and yoga is offered. We even have a dog on staff (soon I’m going to add this cat).
No, it isn’t a top-ten innovative company filled with the best and the brightest; it’s an organization serving people with disabilities, and many of us employees have disabilities. The boss is simply laid back—caring, good at fundraising, and inclined to let us manage ourselves.
Now there are drawbacks as well as advantages to all this freedom: For one thing, I’ve had a hell of a time figuring out how to do my job and whether I like it. On the other hand, I’ve been able to do more of the things I like, such as writing a newsletter and creating a website, and I can minimize time spent on things I am not inclined to do, like casework or organizing social events. At one point I had to clarify my position with myself, the boss, and the staff: Since then I’ve felt more aligned and energized.
Given all this freedom, there is a temptation to take advantage. To slack, or to attempt to manipulate others, or to define their jobs for them. There could be a blaming of our own disabilities for falling short on a project or not doing something.
Yet, in all this wonderful chaos, there is regard for individuals, and there is laughter, and there is room for creating a support group or website or even a new conversation on health outside of the medical model. In that sense, it is a highly evolved work environment. In another sense, there is dysfunction that slides under the onus of disability rights. Everything and everyone has its dark side.
My point is: Out of chaos can come amazing things. I have learned to exercise new muscles in communication and in technology. I have gained much validation too, of my introverted nature and need to retreat and work on the website. I have learned how to serve in a way that suits me—not out of guilt and pushing myself, but in finding the tasks I can do well and helping willingly. By spending time listening to people’s stories instead of trying to fix problems, by standing up for myself when people ask too much, or ask for inappropriate things, or ask for things I cannot give without exhaustion and resentment. To give what I can and give it well.
The environment is wide open, the positions freely defined, and most importantly, the lessons really are free for all.

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