Walnut Room this way

Walnut Room this way

Thursday, February 25, 2010

I want to change my day job!

I went to a training this week on learning how to make a documentary. Our instructor was a former photojournalist, who now teaches in our school of journalism at the university. I have been thrilled that our new chancellor is committed to service in the community and the state, recognizes the value of service in both educating students, and in how it contributes to the development of communities and individuals. I have been doing service learning (active learning, engaged learning, community service--every name it has been called in the years long after social work was doing it as a matter of pedagogy) ever since I began teaching. I have had a consistent service learning project in a local community neighborhood every semester for the past 4 years. Not only have the students benefitted--and I heard just a couple of weeks ago from one who talked about how that project helps her in her current work right now--the community has benefitted. Each time we go, we see old friends and newcomers. The ones who know us from the past four years always express appreciation that we continue to be a presence and support and resource in their neighborhood; the newcomers are always full of questions about why we are there and what we are doing. At our last event at the end of the semester last fall, a mother said, "I know you must have a heart for this, because you are still coming." Many communities are used to college students coming in to do a one-time project and then departing. It is a source of pride to me, I confess, that we have been able to continue this work for 4 years.

What does that have to do with my "day job"? There is encouragement to document our work in communities, and in support, the university offered this training and access to a wonderful new digital video camera called the FlipCam. Debra and I did our first interviews today for the documentary. I was amazed at the things I would not have thought to do--even though I have been photographing--and even made some videos--for years. I set up the camera, arranged the best angles, addressed lighting, did test runs, etc. After the interviews, I downloaded the files and began to edit to start the work on the documentary.

Here comes quitting my day job! It was so much fun--looking at the interviews, selecting the pieces that best tell the story, creating titles, etc. It will take us a couple of weeks to get this first one ready, and we do the second piece of filming in the Delta next week--I have already been framing shots in my head and thinking of how to pull it all together. This first film will be part of our presentation in Atlanta next month, but ultimately, will be a record of our new service project in the Mississippi Delta.

I must confess, though, one of the most exciting things today was just looking at the video of the two interviewees, hearing their thoughts, and feeling an excitement and a satisfaction about the future and being privileged to have an entree into their lives and minds. And for that reason, no matter how much I loved the technology and the new fun, it was just a reflection of the reality of my real job.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

At the table of peace, there will be bread and justice.

I have been remiss in thanking my friend Jane for this reminder of our common vision for the world and our lives. When I arrived home from South Africa in mid-January, the package was waiting for me. It contained this exquisitely hand carved stone dove from an indigenous cooperative. The work supports the lives of many people in that community, in addition to being a beautiful piece of art.

I have always loved that Jane's gifts supported the lives of extra-ordinary people: people whose circumstance of birth did not offer the life choices that many of us take for granted, and yet, who not only endure, but contribute to the joy in the lives of others whom they will never know.

My nightly ritual is to light the candles in my living room for a short period of serenity. I often sit in the dark, watching the glow of one or many candles, remembering things of importance to me, as well as envisioning future dreams that may some day come to light.

Thank you, Jane, not just for the beautiful remembrance of our friendship through a gift, but for the gift of your presence in my life. Peace.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tupelo Thursday

It was a beautiful day here today, with sunshine and temps in the 50s! I drove to Tupelo to do some assessments with students for the gerontology research project that my Tupelo colleagues and I are working on. What a great bunch of students! They gave up their break between classes to fill out the assessment. We have been working on this project for a year now, and are about to apply for a grant for some funding to continue it and expand it.

After that, I worked on additional research (the kind you do in the library) and then went to lunch with one of my friends and colleagues. It was a pleasant drive back home to Oxford where the weather is still almost spring-like.

I fed all the birds and changed the water in all the birdbaths, fed my ghost cats (there are now 4 of them eating here regularly), and cleaned up yet another box Libby chewed up in the 10 minutes I was out feeding the birds. I spent the weekend getting things up and away from her, but she found a box I missed. Looks like time to research the training manual--there is a great one called "Don't Shoot the Dog" which is of course sounding pretty good right now.

Monday, February 15, 2010

I'll wash my hair in snow...and then throw Libby out in it.

It has been snowing here...brrr. It started last night and kept up throughout the day. Fortunately, it did not cause road problems as I had to drive to the Desoto Campus for my Monday night class. It was downright miserable at 26 degrees though. Now rain is coming, so you know what that means...I almost fell and busted my rear coming up the steps tonight as they were slick with melted snow. At least my travel to Tupelo for tomorrow was rescheduled for Thursday so maybe the weather will be better by then.

Then there is Libby....she has apparently been dealing with separation anxiety, but you never know when it is going to strike. She was fine all day today with me at work, but after Randy fed her tonight, once he left the room, she tore up a photo album that has been on the bottom shelf of my bookcase--unmolested--for years. Yes, of course it was baby pictures of Justin from the pre-digital-who-knows-where-the-negatives-are age. In the last few weeks, she has totally annihilated a book, several magazines, two boxes of stationery, a pack of labels, a stash of my South Africa souvenirs, and a box of Christmas ornaments.

I know what you are thinking--don't leave them where she can get them, right? She actually managed to drag a box out from under the bed, chew it open, and dig out the Christmas ornaments. Then, she moved the heavy suitcase in the closet, drug out the bag of stationery, chewed it open...and there is that story. The book? I was reading it, left it on the bed, and went to the bathroom.

Tomorrow my task is to get all paper items out of this room or in metal bullet-proof boxes. It's either that, or doggie valium.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Finding something bigger than yourself

It is not a surprise to anyone that I have been in a blue state these past few weeks. It is hard to get motivated right now to do even the things I have to do, let alone consider doing anything I want to do. In the past, what always helped me shift off dead center was to get involved in something bigger than myself. Having a purpose of greater importance than how I "feel" has always been the thing that helps me reinvent my purpose, and it comes with the advantage of making me feel good, excited, and energized.

I was thinking about that this morning on my way to work. For some reason, what came to mind was the year 1985 and one of the worst years of my life. I will spare the details of how I ended up in that place, but how I got out of it was a life lesson for me. Though I had worked with people with mental retardation, I had always been involved with high functioning individuals who lived in the community. Due to the circumstances, I ended up being assigned to a dormitory in a state school for people with mental retardation...severe, profound retardation. My first day walking onto the dorm, I was stunned.

I saw elderly men who could not swallow...blink their eyes...grasp anything placed in their hands. Most had feeding tubes. At bathtime, they were lifted onto a concrete slab that made me think of an autopsy table, and washed and rinsed. Most of them did not seem to react, but on occasion, some would cry like infants--my guess was it could not be too pleasant to be laid naked on a cold concrete slab in a big old cold room, lathered up and hosed off. Then they would be re-diapered and dressed, and placed back in bed, or the special reclining wheelchair, since they also could not sit erect and hold themselves up.

It was the opportunity to find something bigger than myself and my own issues. I grappled with it painfully. It was my first realization of why resources needed to be channeled toward a population of people who depended upon others for their very lives. It was also a painful introduction into the fact that our most vulnerable citizens are often cared for by those who have no education, little training, and in some cases, little or no compassion for the responsibility that entails. My job as the QMRP (Qualified Mental Retardation Professional) was to assess the needs of those individuals, and help develop intervention plans that would meet their needs, and help train staff to carry them out. I say "help" on all of it because unlike when I was a QMRP in a community residential and thus was the "boss" who had the authority to do that, in this setting, I was merely a "consultant." I had to depend on my communication and interaction skills to make things happen as I had no authority to enforce their happening.

One thing I brought to the job was my fierce insistence (this was pre-social worker days) that people had to be treated as people first--with dignity and respect, and valued for being people. The fact that the person had mental retardation was secondary, like having blonde hair is secondary to being a person. Respect for a man who was 83 years old, even if he was in a diaper and helpless, to me meant I called him by his surname with a title of Mr. in front of it.

The first time I completed a team meeting and wrote up the assessment, I inserted "Mr. Smith" in all the places it was necessary to refer to a client. The assessment was returned to me for my signature and in place of Mr. Smith, it had "Johnny." (These are made-up names; while in the 20 something years I dealt with clients, I may well have worked with a Johnny Smith, but I don't recall that, and certainly not in this case was that his name.)

I promptly crossed out all the references to "Johnny" and penciled in "Mr. Smith" and returned it with a note that said it was inappropriate to refer to a man who was 83 (or thereabouts--don't recall how old he was either) by his first name when neither I nor any one else on that team had a personal relationship with him that would entitle us to call him by his first name. The report came back the second time with Mr. Smith in all the blanks, and after that, when I sent them in with the client's surname and title, they were returned to me the way I had sent them in. The problem was that all the reports were pretty much "canned" and the computer utilized the first name to sort of fill in the blanks. Like a letter merge, they could type "Johnny" and it would just insert Johnny in all the blanks. In my opinion, they could just as easily type "Mr. Smith."

Some thought I was nit-picking. To me, it was part of a mission outside myself: to shift the thinking of others about how we should treat our clients, even if Mr. Smith never understood Mr. Smith any more than he understood Johnny.

Other things transpired, but over the years when I have found myself in one of those periods of re-evaluation--moratorium some might say--I eventually figure out what is the thing bigger than myself right now? How do I get outside of what I am feeling and move back into action? My friend used to say, "you can act yourself into believing, but you will never believe yourself into acting."

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Just watching a little TV with Rex last night. He's watching the Super Bowl right now, but I had to work on class prep for tomorrow (4 hours of class time in my grad class) so I had to skip it. I can hear the crowd all the way in here, and on occasion, it excites Rex enough he starts barking. I think he is for the Saints.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Monday night class

I wish there was a picture that could capture how I felt when I left the Desoto Campus tonight after class. Words like excited, enthusiastic, empowering, hopeful, positive all come to mind, but seem so trite. As if often the case in any job, any personal life, there are good things and not so good things, and I seem to have had a share of late in the not so good. (I will say with all sincere truthfulness and humility that in the face of the situation of Emery and her family that my "not so good" pales in significance. I also say with all sincere truthfulness and humility that I also learned long ago that the feelings we have are important, even in the face of those who have far more dire circumstances and situations than we do.)

So, in that case of the not so good extra helpings lately, it was incredible to have an experience where it felt "so good." This group of students in this class (this is only my second class meeting with them) is just a tonic to me. They range in age from apparently quite young and traditional to older students who have children. They are somewhat evenly split between black and white. They are all women. Some are married, some are single, some are divorced. What makes it such a "good" experience?

When I teach, my favorite thing is a lot of discussion and application of the information they should have read or already know to situations. The "critical thinking" kind of class, where one has to apply knowledge. Tonight, we reviewed the content of the class topic briefly (by briefly, perhaps 30-45 minutes?) and then the rest of the class was applying it, through group discussion, dyads, question and answer, etc.

I was fascinated by the variety of interpretations, explanations, experiences that all combined to give us a broader understanding of the content and how it informs social work practice. There is one young woman who impressed me last week, and continued to do so this week, with her insight and application. As the class progressed and the discussion deepened, it was exciting to see students begin to venture more opinions, ideas, test out new theories, speak up when they had been mostly silent.

We talked about challenges, and the importance of people and things in our life that challenge us, and how it allows us to develop our identity of who we are in the world. It reinforced the importance of opportunities for competence in our lives, and how one of the most important things we can do is create opportunities for people to experience competence.

So, as I was traveling home the hour and 15 from Desoto to Oxford, I was not only elated about the students in this class and the future opportunities, I was thinking about myself. I was feeling empowered, and as if no matter what, I will not only survive, but thrive. I was thinking of all the difficult things I have faced, all the challenges that I have faced, and thinking of how in spite of painful things and things that I would just not "prefer" that this journey has been one of joy and learning and infinite opportunity when I have been open to the experience and the opportunity. On a cognitive level, every time it has been difficult the last 2 years, I know that I will survive. Possibly because I always have, and have such wonderful support from family and friends that I cannot conceive of being alone and unable to draw on those resources if needed. I have had some wonderful experiences in the last 2 years of beyond survival, like when I was in St. Paul 2 years ago.

Tonight, on the way home I was in thrive mode--that no matter all the things I could have or should have or might have done, my life right now is what I choose. I was blessed with parents who believed in me and still do, with natural intelligence, and with opportunities I did not always deserve and often squandered. I know that my achievements are due in part to chance and life circumstances, just as they are due in part to hard work and perseverance. I know that everyone does not have all of those components, and in spite of that, for all those who do not, many still succeed, still persevere, and still matter and make a difference.

I guess that is why in spite of my reputation among some as a two-headed hydra, I am still inspired by social work, social work students, and the whole idea of making a difference in the world.