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.

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?

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