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Motherhood & Other Unclear Lessons

I was assigned a family over a year ago where I had to conduct family therapy using a phone interpretation service because the mother with six children was Spanish-speaking (I am not). The mother was also undocumented. After managing to make some therapeutic headway in the first few months, the family struggled to maintain stable housing and became homeless at the start of the summer. This family of seven ended up moving on a temporary basis into one bedroom of an apartment with two other undocumented families.

Back in August, I typed out the below entry on my phone to process my feelings about a failed home visit where I was going to give the family metro cards to come into my office for a session to address the family’s concerns in privacy:

I want to be angry or feel that the mother is ungrateful but I do not feel those things. Yes, I tried my best to ensure that this visit would occur and even gave mom an out by asking her to just text me if she won’t be home. Yes, I advocated for the family to be provided round trip metro cards to our office because I know it would be unrealistic and unfair to expect the family (one mom, six kids) to come on their own. And I wanted her to come to see me for once so we could have a meaningful conversation in a private, comfortable space with the aid of phone interpretation so that her kids do not need to be burdened with being spokespersons and she can feel safe that other families are not overhearing her business.

But I also understand that in the grand scheme of all their problems, talking with me isn’t high on her priority list. So what I’m left feeling is sadness. Sadness that really and honestly, there isn’t much of anything I can do for this family in their current situation. I am a family therapist. And while I can and should accommodate the realities of many of our clients in child welfare, I’m simply not equipped to help them with concrete needs. I’m not a housing specialist. I don’t have an array of resources at my disposal to provide undocumented families the necessities they need.

Refer them elsewhere. That’s the response. It’s the right move. And yet, it feels so hollow. We all know too well how many families fall through the cracks when they change programs or agencies. After nearly 8 months of working with this family and with the last 2 months of the family being homeless, this sliding down the slippery slope of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I can’t help but feel what was the point of all this?

“We plant seeds. It’s not about solving their problems but about giving them the tools to face them more effectively. It’s the reality too many undocumented families face,” and so on. None of this gives me solace. I am just tired… and tired of expending more energy on a family that’s really beyond my or my agency’s capabilities.

I do acknowledge that there are strengths and some resources present in this mother and her family. But I can say with objectivity I’m not of much use to this family right now.
I’m not frustrated or angry. I’m just… Tired.

………

By the end of October, the family eventually ended up in an exceptionally safe and comfortable shelter and I was able to transfer the case to a nearby general preventive program to a dedicated worker who was also Spanish-speaking. I also got to have a very touching termination visit with the mom and children. Language barriers and evidence-based model protocols aside, I figured this was the closest to success I was going to achieve with this case.

Then in mid November, I came to learn the devastating news from the new worker that mom had been hospitalized, was found to be terminally ill, and was not going to be discharged. ACS planned to find permanent placements for the children (ages 7 to 13). I broke down.

In spite of all the problems and instability, the one constant in the lives of these children was their mother. While mom had grown more weary and drained over the year, the children remained high spirited and resilient. This mom was clearly doing something many things right no matter what her ACS worker said.

Unfortunately, this is where their story ended for me. It will be someone else’s job to see the next chapter of their story unfold. I am left mourning the loss of a woman who faced countless struggles and at times made me feel my weariest as her worker, but who unquestionably championed at being a mother.

My work with this family taught me that while my role as a social worker may often feel unclear, unsatisfying, and ultimately, not enough, it does not mean the work/effort/connection was in vain. There are not always clear lessons to be learned or closure to be gained. And I am learning to be okay with that.

My thoughts are with her children.

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Overcoming the Devils

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“We don’t get many days like this.” Not a line one expects to hear at the closing of a High School Valedictorian’s speech but one that so powerfully captures the essence of life as a 19-year-old graduate in Foster Care. As I sat at the ceremony then and as I reflect now on my past year of work, this statement not only applies to youth in foster care but also to those who work relentlessly to change this.

On my first day of work, I asked each young man to write down their “words to live by” as well as the one place in the world that they would travel to if circumstance was no barrier. I hoped to use this to create a wall in the cottage that could grow as new residents came and serve as a testament to all those who left. One in particular recited a Bob Marley lyric I know well “Overcome the Devils with a Thing Called Love.”

Social Workers, notoriously branded as do-gooders are not immune to life’s devils. There is the devil of working more for lower wages. There is the devil of others looking down on you for being over-worked and under-paid. There is the devil of working with other over-worked and under-paid colleagues who take out their daily frustrations on you. There is the devil of bureaucracy. There is the devil of doing everything in your power for your youth and families only for your efforts, for reasons beyond anyone’s foreseeable control, to inevitably fail. There is the devil of becoming every kind of Social Worker that you swore that you never would.

Working within a metropolis such as New York City one can in a few short subway stops travel from a neighborhood of extreme poverty to the literal epitome of excessive wealth. Across the country, youth of color remain represented in Foster Care at a disproportionate rate. LGTBQ youth in the foster care system face increased homelessness. At its best, the systems we employ keep children and their families’ safe; create opportunities for growth, and in doing so remedy some of the harsh realities of this systemic oppression. At its worst; these systems employ the same cycles of oppression to their youth, families, and staff. It is not difficult to become both victim and perpetrator of this cycle that at its root is really just fed by hopelessness.

Hopelessness is bred through an exhaustion of all possible options. I am not hopeless. To begin, all work on a fundamental level is “Social Work.” With the opportunity, everyone who is capable and willing works so that they can sustain and generally better life in our social environment. “Social Workers” should not be the only individuals in this world loaded, even symbolically by name, with this task. When we realize that the systemic cycle of oppression, inadequate mental health care, and poverty is a burden that we should all share regardless of our profession, we have tackled the greatest obstacle. As Rita Mae Brown once said, “don’t hope more than you are willing to work.”

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Above all we most effectively help others when we help ourselves. Funding aimed at strengthening preventive programs that can work within homes before removing children from homes allow families an opportunity to effectively parent, addresses trauma early on, and prevents system overload. Agencies and Social Workers that continue to strive to cap caseloads through mandates, pay higher and fairer wages by re-evaluating the budget, and reduce burnout by allowing the flexibility of occasionally working at home make small movements towards this goal. Those in leadership roles who treat Social Workers with compassion and value their strengths will find that Social Workers treat their youth and families the same.

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One of the most respected therapeutic crisis intervention trainers on our Residential Treatment Center campus opens each session with a personal anecdote. On his way out of campus after a long late night shift, a resident in crisis darted out in front of him and ran into his car. While the resident was not injured, everyone around them immediately surrounded the young boy. Paralyzed by what had just occurred, after checking on the boy, this trainer sat in his car, un-sure what to do next. Surely he contemplated whether it was worth coming back to work the next day or ever again. Unexpectedly, the boy’s mother approached the Trainer and asked how he was doing. If not for this small gesture, this now well-respected Cottage Supervisor may not have made it another day on the job. As we make tiny dents gradually over time, we will see good work get better. At the heart of all gut-wrenching positive change, after all, is that thing called love.

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Redefining “Adulthood”

“We can do no great things; only small things with great love.”

-Mother Teresa

 

I had high expectations for my new life in NYC. Much like the heroines in the romantic comedies that fill my Netflix queue, I imagined that the city would transform me. Surely I would be absorbed into the vibrant ebb and flow of the concrete jungle, experiencing just the prescribed amount of triumph and heartbreak before emerging a stronger and more confident woman. I have lived in New York City, splitting time between Manhattan and Brooklyn, for a grand total of 29 days, and I am already a different person, but not in the ways that I anticipated.

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The dream: move to NYC and grow-up

In the years since I graduated from college I have wrestled with the term “grown up,” trying to decipher what exactly it means to be a grown up and how I would know when I was finally a fully functioning adult. After four years of college and two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda I could certainly see growth in my character and development, but based on my deep love of children’s movies, a lack of crystal clear goals for my future, and a propensity for allowing my bank account to hover just above the minimum, the elusive label of “grown up” seemed to be still out of reach.

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that’s a lot of steps – maybe I’ll just wing it. Everyone’s doing it, it can’t be *that* hard.

I was thrilled to accept a position with Children’s Corps because I am passionate about working with children and the program offered me an opportunity to try to change the world for the better. I also viewed NYC as my opportunity to live independently in an environment that would push me to confront all of the boundaries preventing me from making the grand leap into adulthood.

I hoped that apartment hunting would be my first successful solo venture into the adult world. I had visions of my NYC self, the epitome of maturity and independence, meeting with landlords, negotiating the lease, and securing my ideal apartment. In reality, instead of blossoming into a sophisticated adult, I often found myself playing the role of a petulant child. I struggled to manage expectations and keep a positive attitude as I dove into the chaos of navigating the Craigslist apartment market. Throughout the process I did not feel mature at all, and almost every visit was narrated by a whiney voice chattering in my head. The rooms are too small. The commute to work is too long. The owner has six parrots in the kitchen. I’ll have to harvest an organ to pay rent.

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Hunting for an apartment on Craigslist can be more than a little challenging.

I did eventually find an apartment, and in the process of acclimating to the city I have learned the value of HopStop and Seamless, opened a new bank account, invested in quality headphones for the plethora of train rides ahead of me, and hailed my first cab after new shoes gave me blisters. I wrote a check to my landlord with enough zeros to induce a bout of nausea and filled out stacks of paperwork for the HR department, ecstatic to see all the zeros on my first real salary. All the aspects of my “adult life” started to fall into place and yet I was lacking the epiphany signaling that I was magically an adult, somehow really making a difference amidst all the chaos, sorrow, and violence that plagues our world.

On the first day of shadowing at my agency they were not quite prepared for me, so I had a lot of quiet reflection time. My supervisor gave me a few reports to read and I devoured every word, drew family maps, and studied all aspects of the particular family described in the documents. Three children, two foster homes, an absent birth mother, and two children freed for adoption. I studied the facts, prepared a list of questions I wanted to ask my supervisor, and left that day feeling somewhat confident in my abilities to do this job. The next week I followed another case planner to visit the children, and within a few moments all of the facts and figures jumped off the papers and manifested before me in the shape of three adorable young children, running in circles around my legs and begging to play catch with their new ball. I played basketball with the 3 and 2 year olds, held the baby’s chubby hands as she gurgled and cooed in her stroller, and talked about the children’s progress with both foster moms. I cared deeply about the children when they were numbers and names on paperwork, but to have the kids right in front of me evoked a mixture of joy and panic all at once. Reading about a family, engaging myself in constant theoretical debates about how to best support the people I work with, was nothing like meeting them in person. In that moment the case was no longer theoretical and all the possible solutions I had brainstormed would need to be decided upon and implemented, with real consequences to accompany every choice. The enormity of my job, and the many responsibilities that I have in order keep these children safe and happy, all while moving swiftly towards the best possible permanency goal, was truly overwhelming.

I will be working with many children over the next two years and it can be rather intimidating to contemplate all of the work that stands before me. I don’t want children to languish in the system but I don’t want them to be rushed into unsafe situations. I want children to be reunited with their parents but that will not always be possible. I want to keep siblings together but extenuating circumstances will sometimes keep them apart. After my first visit with the children on my caseload I spent an enormous amount of time pondering how I could be most effective in my job as a case planner.I made a list of the qualities I hope to embody as I embark upon this new journey, and I realized as the bullet points spilled onto a second page that the tasks involved in this job would never be simple or easy. Luckily, I know that I am not alone. There are many other people who will come together to make decisions about what is best for the children. When I am unsure of how to handle situations or escalating stress levels, I have not only my agency colleagues to lean on for support but also the entire staff, and all the members, of Children’s Corps.

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It turns out that I was right to expect change when I moved to NYC, but the catalyst is not the city- the work is. I find myself constantly inspired by the families I will work with and my colleagues in the field of child welfare. For every worker I have met who is burnt out and exhausted there are ten more who love what they do and exude passion and empathy in every interaction I have observed. I am so excited to start working with families at my agency and beyond grateful to be a member of Children’s Corps. I have a month’s worth of training, enough handouts to make any tree-hugger cringe, and so much more to learn. I am working to redefine “adulthood” based on the revelation that my life will not be comprised of one great contribution, but a multitude of small efforts- some of which I will completely screw up- some that will end splendidly, and all of which will be based on a true love for the work I get to do each day.

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What I’ve Learned in Children’s Corps Summer Training

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Ok all joking aside, I have truly learned a vast amount of knowledge these last 4 weeks of training. I’m still not entirely sure of what I’m getting myself into.  I do understand that I am more prepared than most people entering this field of Child Welfare but that doesn’t mean I am better than the people I will be working with. I am very humble to have been given this great learning opportunity that I will be embarking on in the next 2 years. I know I will be taking many paths and most likely hitting bumps along the way. I want to use the blog as a space for me to share any successes and challenges I come across. My goal is to share the diamond in the rough that is Child Welfare and show people the many surprises that arise.

 

As Barry has said consistently throughout training: “It Depends”. I take this as a learning point that means no matter how much he can teach us about how to do the work in the ideal world, it truly depends on each person’s experience and how they handle it. .

 

I hope to at least touch the life of one person and truly make a difference.

With all that being said, I want to leave everyone with 2 quotes to remember as we embark on the next 2 years:

 

  • “Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists…it is real…it is possible…it’s yours.” – Ayn Rand

 

  • “The naked truth is always better than the best dressed lie.” – Ann Landers

 

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What is the question???

Yesterday there was a hearing for a mom who has one child in foster care (for almost 4 years now) and one child that was paroled to her in a mother child inpatient program at about 3 months old. The hearing was regarding the removal of the younger child based on the fact that dad was arrested and it appears as though mom had lied to the court on a couple of occasions.

Just to provide context to this story, mom used to prostitute and use heroine . The first born child was born positive for opiates and was placed in foster care. The Foster Parent whose home the child is placed in is intelligent, loving, a professional, and provides a two- parent home with all the amenities for this child. Two years into the child’s life, mom got clean, and became pregnant with baby #2. Baby #2 was placed with her sibling for 2-3 months, and then paroled home to mom.

Mom has completed, and I would say benefited from, all of the services that were required of her, most importantly drug treatment. She is applying for housing and is working full time because as she reports “April* (I changed the name) is used to nice things in her foster home and I want to make sure I can give her nice things too.” THIS STATEMENT ALONE, tells me mom is forward thinking, concerned about her child’s well being and permanency; she knows her daughter’s life will be an adjustment and wants to work in order to provide a quality life for her children, just like the one foster parent does for April*. (Names have been changed)

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Back to the hearing; right before FCLS (Family Court Legal Services,) went into the courtroom the Case Planner called me and asked if we would allow unsupervised visits. I also received a call from FCLS asking if there was any reason why we can’t move to unsupervised visits. I responded that mom and child have model visits, loving, attentive, affectionate and playful. And I stand by this. The question was not, whether mom exercised poor judgment by endangering the health and safety of her child nor was the question about who is a better parent.

SO I answered honestly and said, in light of dad being arrested and despite suspecting that mom has lied about some things along the way, I feel the child is safe with mom and should be allowed to move back to unsupervised visits (the parents were having unsupervised day visits until dad’s arrest after which the judge ordered supervised visits at the agency).

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The FCLS attorney told the court that she spoke to a supervisor who said mom is a model parent and has had very positive visits.

The Foster Parent, who attended the court hearing (attends all court hearings, which I commend her for), used her superwoman powers and arrived at the agency within 20 minutes to talk with me and my administrative supervisor. The Foster Parent was extremely angry with the decision to allow unsupervised visits, felt side swiped and betrayed by me saying that the mother had model visits with her daughter. She claimed that I never shared this information with her (which I have on several occasions), wanted to know my definition of a model visit, and how many times I supervised these visits. She questioned why I didn’t think it was a safety issue that mom is a prostitute, smokes and hangs out with other prostitutes.

HERE’s the thing. In my opinion, FOSTER CARE IS NOT ABOUT BEING THE “BETTER PARENT” It is about permanency, safety, and well-being. SO, when a court allows a parent to continue to try and reunify, then is it my responsibility to work towards and support that goal. This is not some kind of contest, where the best parent “wins.” In that case, yes some foster parents would “win” that contest, and in some cases, bio parents would win over the foster parents. It frustrates me to think that a foster parent would think that I am not looking at these children and families from a safety and risk perspective, because I am and always do. The truth is, mom is not using, she is working, seeking housing, taking good care of her baby, and is working towards reunification with her other child. Yes, mom has used poor judgment and may make more mistakes in the future but it is not my job to judge her or prevent reunification just because the foster parent is able to provide a more stable and secure home environment and the potential for certain life opportunities that mom might not be able to afford. While this is sad, its not the point. Who is to say the best interest of the child is stability and potential outcome over sibling and mother connection, when maybe both can occur. We can only look at what is happening today and has happened over the last 5 years; we cannot project what may potentially happen in the future.

I have been riled up for almost 24 hours now. The foster parent was so angry with me when I said to her that child welfare is about a minimum degree of care. Okay, I know its not about that. It is about ensuring safety and removing the risks that brought the child into care. ISN’T IT? OR HAVE I LOST MY MIND? I want to make families whole, and I want kids to be safe, and I believe the child would be safe with mom just as she has been safe with the foster parent. I am not taking anything away from this amazing foster parent who is fighting for what she believes to be this child’s best interests, but it doesn’t make me wrong. To top it off, at the end of the argument she said she hopes I never have children. That was a low blow and I know she said it out of anger. But all these kids are my kids, and I am doing the best I can just as she, and birth mom are doing.

I am not sure we are always on the winning side of things in child welfare. Because truth is the child feels like this foster parent is her mother and at this point the bio mother is more like a step-mother. Maybe I can’t change that. Maybe the court won’t change that. But until reunification is not possible and I believe the child is not safe, I will continue to support family reunification.

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Finding Our Bravery

When someone enters the field of child welfare, they’re told a lot about some of the physical and emotional strains that it places on you. The frustrations of bureaucracy, traveling to different boroughs, “resistant” clients, and late night visits are just some of the everyday frustrations that we face. We expect these issues to challenge us emotionally in terms of our fortitude, of being able to push past the tiredness or the anger. But to me, the emotional difficulties of child welfare are far more subtle and complex than that. We continuously challenge ourselves on a number of levels, all of which shape our experience and ability to forge ahead with the work we do.

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One of the greatest challenges I think child welfare workers face is the need to be brave. Bravery presents itself in many forms, whether it’s dealing with a difficult supervisor or coworker, recommending the removal of children from a home, or putting on a stoic face when you know someone is about to scream at you. It also means something different to everyone; what scares me might be something that you can do without a second thought. Whatever your particular fears or anxieties may be, bravery is about acknowledging your issues and stepping up to the plate regardless. Unless you’re a robot – or just really ill-suited for this job – you will definitely face this issue. Probably time and time again.

It might seem strange that as someone whose very job is to assess safety and risk, I struggle a lot with confrontation. But as a preventive worker, I like to act like the parents’ advocate, and it takes a lot for me to get oppositional to the family’s stance on something. To reframe, I’d rather engage with a problematic attitude than say “You’re wrong! Change!” My reluctance to confront the family directly is often a good thing because it allows us the space to engage and work on change slowly and more genuinely. On the other hand, if I focus too much on normalizing their frustrations, I feel like they take it as validation and the rest of the conversation goes out the window. I’m telling them it’s normal to feel this way, so why change? Part of becoming a good worker is finding a way to balance between confrontation and engagement, but it’s not always easy.

I had an experience with a family not too long ago that really made me deal with this issue of confrontation. One of my clients who suffers from multiple mental health diagnoses was voluntarily hospitalized for a few weeks and had her sixteen-year-old daughter temporarily move in with her older sister. Once there, the teenager loved it. She was able to focus on her schoolwork and relax without having to constantly care for her mother. When mom was finally discharged, the kid didn’t want to go back. ACS had gotten involved and was saying she couldn’t go back, so I encouraged her to stay as well. It seemed like the arrangement was working out for everyone, except for the mom who had come to rely on her teenage daughter for company and support. Understandably, she was devastated.

I felt like I had done the right thing, because a teenage girl was now able to improve her grades in school and focus on applying to college. She was living something resembling a normal life without having to deal with her mother’s insomnia, paranoia, and constant negativity. In spite of all these positive changes, I could not stop thinking about how I had now isolated her mother. With the daughter gone, I could technically just close out her case, but I felt deep down that it was wrong. Feeling the need to be either validated or challenged, I brought it up to my mentor during one of our one-on-one sessions. We spent over an hour exploring my fears of confrontation and feelings of guilt, role playing a conversation between me and the mother, and even making me acknowledge how my own personal history was interfering with my perspective on the family.

So what was I afraid of? My mentor eventually made me verbalize it, though it took the better part of an hour to get it out. I was afraid that mom would look me straight in the eye and blame me not only for making her child leave her home, but for being the catalyst for the deterioration of her mental health. It didn’t matter how “right” the decision had been, this woman was suffering for it, and I knew that. I just couldn’t handle her telling it to my face. Sure, I wrapped all this up in other excuses, like my concern that she might have a meltdown if I went to the home. I can’t lie now, though; it was self-preservation.

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Someone in foster care might read this and laugh at my fears. “He was afraid of dealing with a parent whose kid he took away? I have to handle that all the time!” Well, I don’t. My agency’s preventive program has a 1% rate of removal for our families, so it’s not something I’m accustomed to doing. More so, this wasn’t a clean-cut removal by the system, it was a teenager making an independent, informed choice. No court action, no foster care, nothing even written on paper besides my progress notes in the state database. Now this mother felt like her child had been taken from her, and I could hide behind nothing besides my belief that it was for the best.

It took a while for me to find the courage, but I finally reached out to mom. While her first response was indeed to blame me, she moved past that surprisingly quickly. We started talking about her mental health needs and she even agreed to do a home visit, where I discovered that her post-hospitalization treatment had been mishandled. Two months later, I’m still involved with the family so that I can make sure she’s getting the therapy she needs and that the teenager and her big sister are living together peacefully. Mother and daughter are even working on their relationship, a work in progress which I’m currently trying to facilitate healthily.

10 Steps for Overcoming the Fear of Making a Change

I’m still working with mom to help her understand why her daughter wanted to leave in the first place, which has been a series of uncomfortable conversations. Sometimes, though, you just have to suck it up and say it like it is. It might be harsh, and it might temporarily damage your relationship with that family, but it could also spark the change that needs to happen. Since this experience, I’ve gotten a lot more confident in my ability to have difficult conversations with parents, even when I know I’m going to face some resistance.

My point in writing this story isn’t just to describe a difficult case, or to talk about my personal struggle in overcoming a deep-seated anxiety. I wanted to show through narrative how bravery isn’t just a blind, unpremeditated act of courage. Too often those actions are the result of foolishness. No, bravery is recognizing that we all have our faults, fears, and anxieties, then finding ways to move past it when they prevent us from doing the best work we can possibly do. I didn’t just “get over” my fears of confrontation – I challenged myself through role playing and some deep introspection with a trusted friend. I made myself acknowledge what was keeping me back and actively plan out how I would overcome it. Put plainly, it took work.

Think about your own flaws and how they might hold you back. Now imagine what it would take to break free. What preparation would you need? Words of encouragement? The support of a colleague? How many lengthy conversations or deep breaths? Take some time out of your day to think about it. Maybe you’ll find yourself ready for a challenge.

This is what bravery is. It’s a learning process, and one that you’ll have to embrace in order to push yourself in this ever-so-hectic field we call child welfare. Ultimately, every act of bravery will help you become a braver person – and that’ll make you a better worker, advocate, and inspiration for change.

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A Secret Art of Thinking

 “For their sake he saw people live and do great things, travel, conduct wars, suffer and endure immensely, and he loved them for it. Their vanities, desires and trivialities no longer seemed absurd to him; they had become understandable, lovable and even worthy of respect…

meditationWithin Siddhartha there slowly grew and ripened the knowledge of what wisdom really was and the goal of his long seeking. It was nothing but a preparation of the soul, a capacity, a secret art of thinking, feeling and breathing thoughts of unity at every moment of life. ” – Herman Hesse

So I’m sure by this point each of us has become all too closely acquainted with the fact that change is not easy… for anyone. In fact we are so averse to the concept that it is quite possibly the hardest thing anyone could ask us to do. In life, we are all faced daily with a glaring contradiction between this culturally induced, irrational fear and the knowledge that life and all that it is comprised of is as transitory as transitory can be. A series of changes has brought each and every one of us to the point we now stand and will continue to push us with varying degrees of force to propel us forward on this winding path. When we resist rather than confront the inevitable changes of our lives, we preclude ourselves from embracing them as lessons and opportunities that the universe is purposely setting into place for us to overcome in order to become. To change is to grow; to live, and the faster we could all come to terms with this the better off we would be. Obviously easier said then done, I have found that deliberately doing AND saying things that are consistent with this natural law of life often makes it easier to accept over time. Perhaps that is why the inward change I recently experienced was welcomed rather than met with opposition.  Uncannily enough, this deep perspective shift happened to coincide with my completion of Siddhartha, so, naturally, I was compelled to write a blog post about it;)

I don’t know how else to explain it other than to say that something simply clicked within me throughout the course of this week and I feel drenched – as though everything is sinking into my porous and unquenchable spongy self. I’m really (finally) settling in to myself and my job and my life here in the concrete jungle I was initially very quick to renounce. To me, it was pretty damn ironic I had somehow ended up living and working in a city that I was weary of from the outset- quick to determine that I did not vibe with the trash ridden urban sprawl of New York’s boroughs, nor with its overwhelming millions of hasty, corporate-minded and consumerist residents. With its pockets of immense wealth juxtaposed to the rampant homelessness among many other blatant reminders of societal abandonment in other, less rummaged, ones, I found it hard to reconcile my face-value judgments with the image of New York held by the international imaginary as the ultimate testing ground for immigrants’ high hopes nestled in the American meritocracy. It is no secret that people the world 0ver subscribe to the belief that New York is the cradle of hope and opportunity, Wall St. and Broadway. Of course, I was definitely drawn by the appeal of its alternate persona- the hundred years of history, art and culture produced in the Harlem Renaissance and the incredible and timeless feats of civil rights activism that occurred on the very streets I casually stroll daily.  I cannot deny that my new place of residence lives up to its reputation as the most lively, diverse cultural hotbed for incredible musicians, artists, 20-something activists and entrepreneurs from all walks of life drawn together in this one anomalous place. I tried to convince myself that there truly was no better time than my post-grad point in life to experience this (despite the fact that I’m broker than broke), that it wouldn’t make sense to go hole up in Rural, Nowheresville… no matter how badly I missed (miss)  trees. But my strong convictions called for far more than just a little convincing. The entire process of slowly digging beyond this outsider perspective involved whopping amounts of reframing on my part, forcibly re-angling my vantage points and squinting like mad to discover new ways of appreciating the nuances operating behind and emanating from the nonstop chaos in the streets and the towering trash piles and even in the various smells that waft from every direction in this city of nightmare-esque dreams.

You know that whole grace period you give yourself to acclimate after a huge life transition? I feel like some of them end more subtly than others. Since the moment I moved to New York, I have been engaged in this agonizingly gradual process of habituation- consistently trying to reflect on all of these face-value reactions, thoughts and consequent opinions I’ve been forming and collecting. I repeat the spiel in my head, the premeditated mantras I give to those that ask me how I am adjusting, what I am doing now, and why. As I have a ridiculous amount of commute time, I often find myself reflecting on them in a sea of sleep-deprived strangers that, for however brief a period of time, are all forced together in that small physical and temporal space; each one a different and complicated protagonist in the play of their own lives. Plays in which we all only stand in as momentary extras that odds say will probably never be seen again. It is strange, but I began to realize that this precise setting, one that I so easily denounced as an annoying inconvenience, was actually a rich and nutrient environment in which to plant small seeds of appreciation.

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From within the hurried crowds began to sprout small saplings of recognition that certain preconceptions I was using as defenses no longer rang true. At some point or another I had, in fact, completely out-grown the opinions I had clung to so strongly before. I began to recognize that the very same principles I had been operating within professionally were also starting to apply to the deepest depths of my own personal development.

Through a series of serendipitous and organic moments of connection, and conversely- disconnection (read: singing and dancing in the Times Square subway station and truly paying no mind to anyone else around me), I found that I deeply appreciated how liberated in the anonymity I was beginning to feel. Being my “grit and bear it” type self, I honestly was not anticipating ever reaching a point where I would be able to say this about any aspect of New York. But my preconceived notions about myself and the people and place around me were the only things that managed to delay this realization of the beauty, value and freedom in the bustling life all around me here. I have come to find that my days are filled to the brim with such constant, new and genuinely diverse and incredible stimulation everywhere I turn, and in that so many opportunities to connect with the people who supply it; to surprise them; to make their day just by acknowledging their worth and our sameness despite the fact that we are strangers that happen to be in completely different walks of life… I had a hankering from the start but every moment of my days here really just emphasizes the mere fact that we are ALL THE DAMN SAME. With each his own but glaringly similar “vanities, desires and trivialities”. It’s actually sad to see how taken aback people are when I just take the time to ask them about themselves or their families, to simply listen and try to convey how genuinely thankful I am for whatever interaction or transaction we share, even if it’s just being open to chat as we wait for the subway at 3am. And then to see it reciprocated every time (mostly in the form of free food, which has been awesome) just solidifies how grateful they are to be recognized as human- to not be devalued just because of their job or position in society, something, I have found, that is not taken for granted here in the city.

itgetsbetter

And wouldn’t ya know, all of this just so happens to relate to the most basic and amazing aspect of our roles within the world of Social Work. This pure drive to humanize and empower families simply by showing them empathy, respect, and letting them know that they are not alone in what they face, no matter how much our individualistic culture forces them to believe otherwise. I am of the belief that this egalitarian approach to humanity as one unified and powerful community organism can and should be spread beyond the families that we work with in our professional context, for both their and our own sakes. It is something that has easily bled into my perceptions in a lot of ways and its exciting to be in such an anomalous place that allows me to practice it daily and with everyone that the universe puts me into contact with- for however long or short a time. To have so many opportunities to share all these powerful moments of warmth and positivity with people allowed me to realize how my spirit could be nourished, rather than defaced, by the bountiful ecology of New York City. It basically felt as though I had discovered the most perfectly fabulous pair of prescription sunglasses at the Salvation Army- the ones that allow me to see and experience the world in the perfect tint of appreciation and acceptance (which turns out to be this lovely and iridescent shade of tangerine). In more ways than I can explain, this has helped me to deal with this crazy transition into my adult life as a Preventive Case Planner in Harlem- not only helping to quell the random bouts of loneliness and emotional distress but simultaneously allowing myself to remove the barricades I think we all surround ourselves in to be able to share in that consciousness of unity and oneness that envelopes the world. Sure, I’m cohabitating with mice in an 8′ by 14′ office space and I’m stressing about the realizations I have slowly been making about this field and our limited role within it. But, all in all, that seems like a pretty palatable corollary of mastering this secret and sacred art of thinking, feeling and breathing thoughts of unity at every moment of this fleetingly beautiful life.

perspective

Perspective

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