Archive for the ‘life wisdom’ Category

Lessons Learned

October 27, 2018

As vacation comes closer to the end, and we start the return trip by driving from NOLA back to Mobile where we catch the plane tomorrow, I am considering what I’ve learned over the week of vacation, travel, meeting new people, seeing very different country… and sleeping more, at the same time as being much more active.

  • Hmm… I can maintain my pattern of relatively limited food intake away from home while enjoying a much greater variety of foods.
  • I miss my daily ginger tea with lime juice.
  • I am able to be active without getting so tired, perhaps because at sea level there is so much more oxygen to be had with each in-breath?
  • Soft water, which I experienced for the first time, is really sweet to my skin, and well worth the feeling of needing to scrub extra long to get soap removed.
  • Seafood is as expensive on the ocean shore – at least in restaurants – as it is in my high desert home, which makes no sense to me.
  • Vegetation on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana is both similar and subtly different from state to state, but replete with flowers and plants my husband recognizes from his home in Cameroon.
  • Graduating 500 students as occurred this year at Columbia Southern University takes about three hours even when the speeches are short and “the walk” is well organized and fairly quickly accomplished. Nearly half of that 500 were minorities, and many of the students had traveled in from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Such is the power and reach of a good online university.
  • Blacks and whites appear to function side by side without overt friction in this part of the Deep South, and we were treated everywhere with appropriately businesslike courtesy, but in the week here I saw only one mixed race couple such as we are.
  • Most of the French Quarter seems tacky, full of rip off bars and hokey tourist traps, but retaining the architecture for which it is famous. I hope I am not too biased when I say that the Santa Fe Plaza, or Old Town in Albuquerque retain a traditional look and draw tourists without becoming quite so “shlocky”.  We did have an excellent bowl of gumbo – duck and andouille for me – at Gumbo Ya-Ya by the Quarter area wharf where we took our Mississippi River jazz cruise to mark my birthday.
  • Motel beds vary enormously in quality, and are not consistent by company brand. Fortunately, the two places we stayed for several nights both had good ones.
  • Driving side roads is infinitely more pleasant that taking interstate highways, when time allows.
  • The Vietnamese population in NOLA is reduced by a third from per-Katrina; people moved away again, rather than start over a third time on the site of their second life disaster.
  • Baton Rouge got its name from a red pole that marked the boundary between two native tribal territories in the area where the first governor of the then Spanish territory decided to place his headquarters. It has a lovely Mississippi frontage with a bike and walking trail for pedestrian enjoyment of the river.
  • I was able to divert my thoughts from work on the few occasions that the enormity of what is awaiting me rose to awareness.
  • Google directions can be helpful but I still prefer using a detailed map to waiting for the voice to tell me what to do, too close to the last minute, especially in rush hour traffic. Orienting myself overall with the map, then getting the step by step for details worked out reasonably well.
  • I HATE being pursued everywhere by telemarketing calls and texts trying to influence my choice of Medicare insurance when I am not in the market for insurance at all because I have it through my work. Being on a do not call list doesn’t help, blocking unknown calls doesn’t stop them, NOTHING stops the ugly intrusion into my days. I would have just turned off the phone, but I did need to receive calls from the people repairing my car.
  • Mobile claims to be the original site of Mardi Gras, in the early 1800’s. Wonder how the festivities came to be so strongly identified with New Orleans (and Rio) and not so much with Mobile?
  • The historic downtown section of Mobile has the look of a cross between the French Quarter and Uptown (Garden District) of New Orleans, and is lovely.
  • Drivers in Mississippi and Alabama are FAR more courteous than those in Louisiana. I wonder why?
  • Excited children are as shrill with a southern accent as they are with a western one.
  • My hair still gets unmanageably curly in a humid climate, despite decades of adaptation to high plains desert dryness.
  • A full week on the road is enough to make me ready for a rest at home, although not enough to get me ready to return to work.
  • Most motels do NOT cater to tea drinkers. The little in-room machines are useless for heating water if they have ever been used to make coffee (plastic retains the coffee taste and passes it into the tea), and reservoirs of supposedly hot water in the lobby are not in fact hot enough to brew tea. The only places that actually “work” for a tea drinker are those that have a hot water spigot on their “breakfast bar” coffee brewer machines available 24/7.
  • Given  choice between New Orleans and Mobile, I would unhesitatingly take Mobile. Better meals at a reasonable price, less hectic ambiance, equally pretty historic areas, and access to the Gulf. Unknowns are the differences between Alabama and Louisiana overall as places of residence.
  • Driving in a hurricane’s edge rainstorm reminded me of a trip home from Taos in an equally blinding snow storm, only this time I was behind the wheel instead of the passenger providing a second set of eyes. Both journeys were made successfully, and will undoubtedly remain linked in my memory.

Reaching the turning point of a vacation where one has begun the return trip engenders feelings a bit like reaching a point of age where one is aware that the end of life is fast approaching, and is now much closer than one’s beginning. From the long period of anticipation before a vacation through the trip itself until the return journey starts is rather like the many years of earlier life. While it is certainly true that a life may end at any point, that awareness is usually set aside until an accident, illness, or accumulation of years bring it into more immediate awareness.

Maybe it is only the juxtaposition of this long awaited vacation with a major milestone birthday that has me seeing a parallel? Will I be as accepting of experiencing whatever awaits me when I am called home at the end of life as I am of experiencing the comfort of returning now to familiar pillows, easily available tea, clear dry air and bright starry skies, and the many other elements that define my sense of being home?

Foxes and Owls

September 23, 2018

I spent the past week in training to learn a new data/case management system being implemented by my employer. We were a mixed group of current employees and newly added imports from a former quasi-competitor, all of us working in care coordination as either first level case managers or second level supervisors. To simplify my referents here while maintaining a degree of anonymity for the companies I will refer to my employer group as the Owls and the newly integrating staff as the Foxes. Both groups previously provided services to Medicaid recipients under contracts with our state government. The Foxes contract was not renewed and its clients needed to change providers effective January 1 2019. In a negotiated arrangement, the entire caseload and some 300 employees were transferred into Owl as of September 1. The Fox staff thus has had to learn not only the case management system new to all of us, but also to adapt to the Owl corporate culture which is notably different from their own.

That difference in corporate cultures seems to me to be reflective of somewhat divisive differences in our wider society these days. It also seems linked to my observation of a worldwide and concerning repetition of a trend from the early 1930’s. Following the world wide repercussions of the 1929 stock market crash, economic differences between classes of societies in many countries became exaggerated. The relatively small number of economic “haves” were resented by the large number of economic “have not’s” in a fashion similar to the current anger of a large portion of U.S. society against the “1%” – or the 10% depending on which metric you prefer. Now, as then, reaction is taking the form of both scapegoating on some defined “other”, and a movement toward more authoritarian leaders. Recent election results in several countries suggest the phenomenon is not limited to the U.S. Resentment of immigrants, a rise in nationalism and parochial views, and growing intolerance of difference seems to mirror that experienced in the years before the outbreak of World War II.

The voices advocating “going high” are increasingly drowned out even on the so-called liberal side by strident demands for forceful counter measures. I do not have TV reception in my home by intent. Spending a week in a motel while at the training, I did turn on the set in my room one evening to watch the 6 PM news. I did not see the program through because I was so appalled by the viciousness of all the political ads peppered throughout the show. Not one presented a candidate’s platform, views, aims. Every single ad – all funded by political pacs, rather than individual campaigns – was an ugly, twisted and negative attack exaggeration of some opponent’s purported position. As little as I care to imitate anything in the conduct of our current president, I did find myself scolding the TV for “fake news” as I turned off the set.

Our instructor for my training week is now an upper level Owl manager with whom I have worked for five years. We started together and while I have chosen to remain a front line worker, she has advanced in well merited fashion to my supervisor, then my manager, and now up yet another level to program management. (I have 20 plus years of management in health care behind me and have less than no interest in ever again being responsible for anyone’s work product other than my own.) Holly did an outstanding job of both teaching the Fox staff the procedures we Owls follow to manage our cases, and teaching all of us how to get the work done in the new computer record system. Inevitably, usually in the question sessions, differences came out between how the Foxes had handled some of the work and the way they would now be expected to handle it as Owls. Many of the differences were minor tweaks to procedure (we were after all both subject to the same mandates in our State contracts) but some revealed a deeper difference in corporate culture which may well have contributed to the Owl’s State contract being renewed while the Fox contract was not.

The Owl company originated locally early in the last century. It has grown steadily and is now one of the largest employers in the state. Throughout, it has espoused and manifested a culture of open communication and of caring both for its clients and its staff. It is not perfect – no large business will ever be flawless – but it does consistently get high satisfaction ratings both from its customers and its staff. The Fox company is a regional branch of a major national corporation. It is continuing to do business in our state, just not any longer providing Medicaid managed care here. I have interacted with current and former Fox staff over several years, and learned much more about their operating culture during this past week of training.

What seems most salient to me as a difference between the two companies emerged in a lunchtime conversation I had with a Fox supervisor who was stressed by what seemed to him to be a conflict between what he had been told at the general orientation he had attended just two weeks prior to our training, and what Holly explained as a step in the Owl case assignment process. At issue was whether staff preferences for types of cases could/would be respected. In the general orientation, a presenter had stated that Owl management strive to enable employees to work in the areas for which they feel a passion and commitment. The supervisor heard this statement as supportive of Fox structure which allowed case managers to choose to handle only adult clients, or specialize in children; take on long term care cases or work only with clients needing links to physical health providers. Holly explained that Owl new case assignments are given on a round robin basis, and the case manager is expected to work with a variety of types of clients, with assistance from subject matter experts.

The supervisor could not reconcile what he heard as directly contradictory statements. Either case managers could specialize according to their preferences or they could not. Which was it to be?

I am aware of Owl company efforts to encourage staff to find their niche even as I work a caseload that includes members whose needs are quite far afield from my areas of expertise. I have not felt this to be a conflict because I know if I feel strongly enough that I am unsuited to managing a particular case I can discuss the issues with my supervisor, and either receive the necessary outside support or have the case transferred because it is in the best interests of the client to have a more knowledgeable coordinator to work with. I am also aware that an underlying expectation of Owl employees is that we will stretch and grow rather than stay locked in predetermined boxes doing only the same things over and over. And I have experienced the spirit of cooperation, interaction and helpfulness to one another that is a basic performance expectation in the Owl world.

Trying to explain to the Fox supervisor why I do not hear the two statements he cited as being in conflict, I suggested that he has been functioning in a “black and white” culture, with defined guidelines coming down from the national level and little if any room for discussion or interpretation. “Do it this way” because that is how it has been decided at corporate headquarters, where the responsibility for maintaining standards is held.  He agreed that was the essence of Fox corporate culture. I described Owl culture, by contrast, as a “rosy” culture where guidelines are more fluid. Our standards are clear and expectations communicated, but individuals are encouraged to take more responsibility for their own performance as they contribute to the group’s overall achievements. Flexibility, adaptation, change and growth are the norm for Owls. If those changes start to feel like they are coming too fast, we can speak up, be heard, and know that we will be offered support to adjust.

I suggested to the Fox supervisor that the challenge facing him was not to resolve a seeming contradiction in case assignment guidelines, but rather to shift from hearing things from a black and white mindset to hearing them in a rosy mentality. He thought for a few minutes and agreed that making that shift, and helping his supervisees to do so, would be a big part of his new responsibilities.

What does this employment environment discussion have to do with the near century old cycle of political movements with which I began? For me, Fox culture mirrors the have/have not, missing middle ground rigidity and authoritarian patterns that relieve individuals of personal responsibility but which almost inevitably lead to conflict and war. Owl culture seems to embody a more interactive and democratic model that demands flexibility and willingness to change, as well as taking personal responsibility for one’s actions, but offers a road to negotiated settlement of disputes.

Not everyone is comfortable within Owl culture. Employees resign because they need a more clearly structured environment, with very specific duties that they know they can complete. Or because they are unwilling to put in the overtime sometimes required, or to keep adapting to procedure changes implemented in an effort to further enhance customer experience. I can relate to their frustrations with Owl culture. I understand their need for more control as an extension of my own unwillingness to be promoted to a supervisor or manager role because I want to “only be responsible for my own work product.”

Despite that preference of mine, I know I would not last in a Fox corporate culture. I don’t take well to a highly structured, “my way or the highway” environment. I value the give and take, openness-to-suggestions approach that I have experienced as an Owl. Which is why I labeled the environment a rosy one, rather than the traditional gray  contrast with Fox black and white.

What I don’t know is how to bridge the divide between the two cultures.

The Fox supervisor was oriented to changing his own view. “I’m grateful to have a job instead of being out of one at my age.” He said he has been encouraging that attitude of gratitude in his peers, many of whom were finding it hard to accept their sudden transfer of employer coming after 9 months of uncertainty about Fox renewing its State contract. Over the next months, we will see who can adapt and who decides to leave and seek different employment. Those who remain will obviously be those who can accept, perhaps even welcome, the change of culture. Those who leave will seek the culture they prefer, and for their sake I hope they find it.

Can a third generation coal miner adapt to building solar panels? How do we help a worker on an auto assembly line feel comfortable living in a different state and manufacturing wind turbines? What steps have not been taken as/when they should have, to facilitate maintaining a middle between the 10% and the rest of us? As some of us continue to push for environmental protections, more equitable sharing of resources and social supports, and genuine equality of opportunity, how do we facilitate transitions for those who see themselves losing out in the change?

We are not all Owls. Our societies need Foxes, and need to include them in determining how there can be a place for them to feel productive and important., working alongside Owls. Otherwise, I see more and more countries torn by internal strife, and society as a whole repeating the century cycle ending, God forbid, in a World War III.

What’s Yours is Yours and What’s Mine is Also Yours

September 2, 2018

It’s scary how deeply embedded childhood experiences can be, how instinctual one’s resulting emotional and visceral responses to triggers that occur a half century or more later.  No wonder conscientious parents can obsess about the smallest things, for fear they will “mark” their children for life. At the same time, children are generally quite resilient and can come to accept and live with quite appalling conditions.  Only when their circumstances change, and they gain a different view of those conditions, do they experience noticeable emotional reactions to what they have lived through.

What triggered this reflection was one of those small, meaningless in itself, interactions with my mate.  I had finished cooking a few slices of bacon, and set them aside while I used the remaining oil to fix a small serving of stir fried rice. Bacon is a treat from my childhood that I rarely indulge now. While I was stirring the pan, one of the bacon slices was scooped up and eaten.

I am quite happy to share everything with my husband, yet my first reaction was to feel angry and disrespected. Immediately, I was other where, my hand holding an ice cream cone, my mother taking half the scoop in one large bite, after she had refused to buy a cone for herself in order to “stick to my diet.” That scene repeated itself over and over, in various forms, throughout my childhood.

Whatever was supposedly designated as mine would be co-opted in part – and often entirely – by her, without “sharing” ever going the other way. I was forbidden to touch anything that was hers, forbidden to ask for a taste, let alone a portion, of what she was eating.

At Halloween, when I came in from my trick or treat foray, which was restricted to the  10 houses on two sides of the block we lived on, my bag of goodies was confiscated, to be doled out to me in small quantities for at most three days. “It’s not healthy for you to have a lot of sugar.” By day four, the stash was reportedly exhausted, even though I knew I had not eaten any of the popcorn balls or fudge I had been given.

Approaching a birthday when I was already into my teens, I was walking and window shopping with my parents when I saw a necklace in a window that I fell in love with. It was not particularly expensive and I risked pointing it out and suggesting that it would be something I would love to receive as a present. My father had asked me just that morning if I knew what I might like and I’d said I needed to think on the topic. My mother criticized the necklace design and suggested it wasn’t worth its modest price.“Don’t ask again,” she scolded.

I don’t recall what I received for that birthday. I obviously have  never forgotten that about a month later my mother began showing herself off wearing “my” necklace. Apparently her opinion of its value differed when the purchase was for herself.

To this day, I am generous with my possessions, and very approachable with requests for sharing of whatever is desired – but also immediately bristling if, instead of being asked, my whatever is appropriated in the way that piece of bacon was picked up. I’ve learned not to voice the anger and usually can quickly talk myself out of the offended response. But I have never yet succeeded in not responding in the first place. No amount of reflection and understanding of the source of my reaction has been sufficient to excise the visceral memory of those many childhood hurts.

I dealt with the immediate situation by offering to cook more bacon, and sharing the fried rice. Would that it were equally simple to deal with that shadow mouth gulping down my ice cream!

Old, New, Newer and Older

September 2, 2018

I think I have the beginning of an understanding of the stereotype of older people, particularly older workers, as rigid and inflexible. Not saying the stereotype is valid, but that I am seeing in myself some qualities of resistance to change that could, if taken to an extreme, become a rigidity not conducive to continued employment.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is only one expression of a mindset that I recognize can be attributed to older people, older workers, including myself. “Been there, done that, don’t need to do it again to know it doesn’t work well” is another. As is the certitude that having explored a variety of ways to complete a task over years of  trial and error, and settled on the best alternative for myself, I am unlikely to welcome the suggestion that I shift to a different option.

This preference for patterned behavior shows in the sequence with which I complete member assessments for my work, and the place I like to keep the salt shaker by the stove in my kitchen. Not that I can’t do the work in a different order, or find the salt when I need it after my husband has left it where he last used it, but I know I am more efficient and sure of the outcome if many small bits of my daily life follow the consistent, established routine.

I don’t think that’s a preference unique to older people. Though I’ve lived amid accumulations of things in relatively small spaces most of my adult life, I’ve nonetheless kept an order to the piles and know exactly where to lay my hands on whatever I need.  And I periodically go through the stacks and discard or give away. Rather it seems to me that one of the benefits of growing older is having had the time and experience to understand the value in routine, consistency, and a personal sense of order and rightness to how things should be done.

Which isn’t to say that I refuse to change. My life has been mostly about change these past 6-7 years. New work, new marriage, new friendships, new style of cooking, new patterns everywhere I look.  And now a whole new database system being introduced at work that I have embraced to the point of volunteering for the work group implementing the transition and will be serving as one of the “go to” mentors for my coworkers when they have questions about how to function after “go live” in October.

I do see, however, that I am inclined to notice what the new system will not do as well as the old, or to identify likely points of friction for myself in adapting to the new process requirements . This attitude is in contrast to (mostly all much younger than I) management’s persistent, cheer-leading enthusiasm for how the new system will solve all the problems we have had with the old one. I do see advantages to the change – but I also see disadvantages, as well as the load of work for each of us getting our caseload records switched over.

One apparent benefit to the new system is the way it tracks mandatory contacts and schedules for the worker, so that deadlines are much less likely to be missed. For many of my coworkers this structure seems beneficial. Never having had a problem with keeping track of and organizing my workload, to me it felt like objectionable micromanagement until I understood the system well enough to know how to address the “to do” list in a way that gives me back my sense of being the one to control my workload.

The older-person me first perceived the objection. A younger-person me (as I usually experience myself) understood that I needed to learn enough about the new system (cooking style, living arrangements, income sources) to adapt its methods to my needs and also to adapt myself to its structure. Which is what reducing the stress of change is all about. Adaptation.

If living long has taught us anything at all, it must be that life is inevitably about change and adaptation. Failure to change and adapt is, essentially, death. Maybe not instantaneous, but certain.  Most interviews with people who have exceeded normal lifespan expectations include mention of continuing to engage with life interests and learning, continuing to seek new stimulation even if the level or extent of options is reduced by physical frailty.

The most productive workplaces, then – indeed the most productive communities, groups, social organizations – would seem to be those that have recognized the importance of balancing the energy and enthusiasm usually associated with younger people against the wisdom of experience offered by older participants. In simpler societies, even in our U.S. culture not so very long ago, that value was recognized and respected.

Is it just my jaundiced old lady view, or am I accurately seeing yet another exacerbation of polarization in U.S. society, and a deepening divide between young and old, each group believing for example the scare headlines about cost of, loss of, social programs and a resultant mistaken belief that here again we are faced with “us” against “them.”  

My still young mental self, the part of me that embraces change and declares itself ready to adapt as necessary, is seeking to find commonalities between generations, and encourage the valuable cross-pollination of ideas that benefit us all, just as it has been ready to learn the new work database system, simultaneously appreciating its benefits and questioning how we will manage its shortcomings.  My older self can be heard repeating the voice of the 70 something protester against the effort to impose a Muslim ban (and the broader reintroduction of blatant discrimination that many of us fought against in the 60’s and 70’s), “Didn’t think I’d have to be here protesting this yet again.”

Another adage, about those who do not learn from history being condemned to repeat it, comes to mind. Unfortunately, on a societal level, the unpleasant repetition also imposes its negative effects on those who have learned the lessons and done their best to prevent the country from falling back into old ways. Living long enough to see this cycle around and back again becomes both a blessing and a curse, an opportunity to teach but only if there is someone ready to listen and learn.

It has never been different. I am reminded, almost too frequently these days, of the translation of a tablet excavated from the ruins of a Greek village, in which a father lamented the laziness and reluctance to work of his teenage son.  The writer who shared that tidbit of information concluded, as I will here, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

I therefore do my best to detach, discern where balance can be found, place  my attention on those things that matter in the long run, and cultivate an attitude of patient acceptance, doing what I can where I see myself able to be effective, and letting the rest slide by.  

“I am here. I am alive. I am trying.That is enough.”

STRESS !!!

August 11, 2018

I have been absent from writing for a couple months while negotiating a combination of work and health changes that, out this other side, I now see were causing me far more stress than I had recognized. I know that stress is insidious, subtle and pervasive. I know and employ a variety of stress management techniques as well as stress reduction practices. I thought I was dealing fairly well with the pressures, and feedback from others close to me suggests they also thought I was coping well.

The difference in my body, my energy, my viewpoint this morning when I woke from sleeping the clock round reveal just how much more severe and draining the stress was than I had realized. The physical health matter was the not uncommon need to undergo cataract surgery. In late May I determined that, although my vision was not yet seriously impaired, this summer would be a good time to get through the process. My eye doctor recommended completing the procedures before I became adapted to the grey and fuzzy results of thickening cataracts, and upcoming changes in my living conditions also suggested now would be a good time to get done with the necessary surgeries. I was able to schedule the two operations just two weeks apart, minimizing the time when I was faced with mismatched eyes that nonetheless had to function for daily reading and computer work in order for me to carry on with my employment.

As of today, both eyes are “set” for distance vision, with close to equal need for magnification for reading and to see the computer screen. Interestingly, my old trifocal prescription lenses are still serviceable at least temporarily. What was the distance adaptation works for the computer, what was the middle computer adjustment works for up close reading, and I look over the tops of the lenses for distance. I am told I must wait a month, until after I’m done with the complete and somewhat tedious regimen of drops, before being assessed for what should be the final prescription I will ever need. Or perhaps I won’t need one at all, and can simply use two strengths of readers, one for close and one for the computer screen.

My work during this period included not just my regular care coordination support for my caseload members, but also being trained on the new data management system that is being introduced this fall. Lots of learning and significant extra computer “face time” during the period when my vision was least reliable. In retrospect ,I see that I was struggling for a sense of control during a period of constant change in multiple areas of my life. And I see that I was less patient, more judgmental, and significantly more exhausted than I recognized at the time.

It bears repeating. Stress is subtle, insidious, draining and far more damaging than most of us credit. Managing stress is not the best answer, as my relatively successful effort to do so proves. Eliminating stresses is virtually impossible. Which leaves learning to minimize stress responses, the stated goal of a mindfulness training approach introduced during a recent gathering of my coworkers for our quarterly training at headquarters.

I did make an effort to take mindfulness breaks in my days. I know I kept away from worrying over possible problems and negative outcomes, focusing instead on what I could learn that would be of use to my clients (or helpful for mentoring my coworkers) as I adapted to the changes in vision and mastering the new and different data management system being implemented at work. While I believe I was moderately successful in this effort, I know I have a ways to go yet toward reducing (as opposed to managing) my stress levels.

I offer a general apology to those with whom I interacted over the past month when I was impatient and intolerant – particularly people in my employer’s IT department. Someone up their chain of command implemented a switch from software to cloud based email for all of us, without warning, without training, and without any allowance for the lack of adequate internet infrastructure in rural parts of the state such as where I live. Systems crashed, work could not be done to the tight required deadlines, and I had no leftover reserves to handle the additional stress. I especially want to – anonymously but in a most heartfelt way – acknowledge the IT tech I most recently dealt with, who showed me how to red flag an email as urgent and made me laugh at my own frustrations as he did so. Bless the man!

I don’t have anything substantive to add to the reams of online material (can a term for paper quantity be correctly applied to internet content?) on stress. Rather I feel impelled to document my renewed awareness of how deeply one can be affected by anything that brings one’s sense of identity, or one’s feeling of control over basics of daily life, into question. I did not consciously think about the changes I was going through. I coped with them and kept moving forward but that did not negate their manifestation as subtle stress that seriously drained my energy and sent my attitude “south” (Why south? What did south ever do to deserve so negative an association, other than be traditionally located downward on a map?)

Being present – with one’s Creator, Master, Higher Power, the Sound – being focused for however long or short a time on the immediate present and one’s vital essence and its supports, doesn’t just manage but eliminates stress for those moments. The more frequently one can remember the practice, and exercise it for even just  few moments, the less stress accumulates. The less accumulates, the less requires management, and the more one’s thoughts and energies can be directed to other more important endeavors. I know “these Truths to be self evident.” I apparently needed a reminder to put them more consistently into practice.

I have been reminded.

Baraka Bashad and Thanks Be.

Inner and Outer Cultures

June 1, 2018

No sooner do I comment that it would be nice if we could go a few months without major expenditure, to recoup the finances a bit, then the well pump quits. On a Saturday, with no possibility of knowing what is wrong or what it will cost in time and money to be repaired until Monday at the earliest. We lose electric power often enough that life without running water is familiar.  I lived two years of my early teens without running water also, and have that old knowledge to draw on. Making the transition from flowing taps to only water stored in large and heavy bottles nonetheless takes a bit of doing. Not exactly what I intended to spend my weekend energy engaged with. But then, we know what comes of intentions and plans.

Before learning of the pump failure I did enjoy a day of walking in Santa Fe, seeing creative new jewelry designs, unique treatments of photographs, and some very original free form pottery at an art fair adjacent to the Farmer’s Market where I purchased beautifully multi-colored heirloom tomatoes. In addition to completing routine errands (including refilling the aforementioned large water bottles) I savored the quiet reflection time of my hour drive each way.

Based on what thoughts, remarks, and experiences have caught my attention these past few weeks, I must conclude I am engaged in some part of the process of self-definition. Not the who I want to be if I ever grow up type of self definition, but rather the what am I and what values do I channel? What is important to share and what is best not just left unspoken but totally dismissed so that it vanishes completely from my awareness and thus from my life. My recent rant about cultural appreciation versus so-called cultural appropriation is some part of this larger question I am pondering, because as I wrote the lengthy but still far from comprehensive listing of identity elements in that rant, I was aware that I was merely listing external traits and experiences that have influenced me. That external listing may be the common means by which we share something of who we are – but even as I wrote the words I was aware I was not describing the essence of me.

During  a reported in-house meeting at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates participated in a discussion of whether the publication can achieve diversity while maintaining its long-standing tradition of political neutrality. Given the magazine’s recent difficult encounter with trying to add Kevin Williamson to its staff, a move Coates initially supported despite how different the two men’s values are, the question is particularly salient. It touches on other closely related questions such as how much of a range of opinion is acceptable under the mantle of encouraging diversity, and at what point does tolerance of diversity slip over the edge into tolerance of unacceptable extremism? Isn’t diversity as a positive value already a political statement and therefore a step away from political neutrality? Is it possible ever to legislate values and still claim to be politically neutral? Isn’t our current deeply divisive political environment largely due not to disagreements about politics, but disagreements about which values should be enshrined in legislation by our politicians?

A few days break since I wrote those last lines. Well pump has been replaced, water is flowing once more – and an analysis in The Week concluded that what used to be the political reminder “it’s the economy, stupid” has now morphed into “it’s the cultural clash, stupid.” Seeing in my own life just how challenging it can be to adapt to new and different values, blend different cultures, integrate new attitudes, I can readily understand how a nation as diverse as the U.S. can end up as fractured into tribal units as we seem to have become. Each of those external traits I listed in my last post could be considered a distinct tribal identity, to any one of which I might choose to adhere closely, abandoning the others as “not really me,” By not doing so, I place myself in the “multicultural” tribe and take on various implicit values that I admit I wish to see implemented in “my” society.

A theme running through many of the essays published on PlanetWaves, in conjunction with some very fine-tuned astrology, is the persistent narrative of our times, that “the personal is political and the political is personal.” I take that as meaning everything I do has repercussions in the wider society within which I live, and how that society is functioning affects how I think and feel. I can easily remember how affected I was by the last presidential election – the sense of very personal affront that so unqualified a male would be chosen over a perhaps tainted but still intelligent, vibrant and capable woman. My whole life of being put down, overlooked, ignored, insulted and scorned simply because I am a female more competent than many of my male coworkers felt summed up in those election results.

It is less easy to see how my actions affect society, beyond the one-on-one of my work and friendships. I suppose the fact that I post these reflections must be counted as me affecting a larger world in ways of which I am mostly unaware. I do consciously consider what I am “putting out there” and try to may it positive.

Hmmm… might some of the contentiousness of current public discourse come simply from the fact that we are all more aware of how society affects us then we are of how we affect society? Isn’t much of the frustration being expressed lately a form of attestation that too many people feel that they are not able to alter what is going on around them? No one does well when he/she feels helpless to change circumstances.

Which brings me once more back to the recognition, central to my spiritual training, that too much focus on the outer, whether for self definition or sense of achievement, leads to fading  energy, loss of joy, mistaken thinking and a degraded quality of life. Without a daily, disciplined practice of turning inwards and upwards, to the spirit/ Soul /Divine/ Master/ God-self by whatever name through contemplation/ meditation/ prayer (to each according to his/her Path) we are all less than we could/should be and the world is less in consequence.

Baraka Bashad

Tolerance/Hate

April 28, 2018

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in our deal little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught
Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific nailed it nearly 70 years ago.
And yet, here we are still in need of Southern Poverty Law Center’s curriculum for schools, Teaching Tolerance.

“When will we ever learn? Oh, when will we ever learn?”

Different topic, same refrain. An epitaph for humanity?

Shape

April 21, 2018

Something I read recently got me thinking about how deeply embedded early self-concepts can become, and how amazingly difficult they are to reverse. I entered my teens while living abroad, amid Asian women who were generally both shorter and more petite, thin, wiry of build than I. My mother, afraid of my developing sexuality, critiqued my figure and urged that I hide my curves under loose-fitting dresses. One exact statement was that if I cinched my waist in, as was the mid-fifties fashion, it made made my hips look “so big” that I should never wear slacks. I still can feel the discomfort and embarrassment of being out-sized that pursued me through my teens and into my 20’s, although when I look at pictures taken of me in those years I see a very shapely young woman with the hourglass figure that I have since learned men find very desirable. Exactly what my mother was panicked about, undoubtedly.

With an odd sense of shock I was struck earlier today by the realization that I weigh very close to what I did in the last years of high school and through most of my college years. I’ve been significantly heavier between then and now, and take pleasure in the accomplishment of being at present much as I was then. What I am finding difficult to reconcile is my lingering awareness of how unacceptably big and unattractive I felt then, compared to the compliments I receive now on my figure and how I look in my clothes – especially on those still rare occasions that I wear pants rather than a skirt.

An analysis of the challenges associated with keeping lost weight off includes the necessity of becoming comfortable with a new body image. Many women, apparently, continue to see themselves heavy even after they have reached a desired weight goal. Taken to extreme this becomes the illness anorexia. I don’t think it is just one’s own body image that is misperceived, but an amalgam of images from fashion and films that blend with one’s sense of oneself in  a hodge-podge of sticky discomfort. It did not help my teen self to have Twiggy be the height of British fashion. Nor the tall, pencil thin models of French fashion houses. Marilyn Monroe’s curves were presented to me as implicitly “not okay” because of their “blatant sexuality.”

I know that all cultures have standards of beauty against which women are evaluated. Sloping shoulders were highly desirable at one time in Japan. In many African countries it is still considered preferable to be of a warm, light brown color rather than deep black, although that is changing. Ample hips and buttocks are believed to indicate fertility and are therefore positive attributes in many cultures – though not in my adult lifetime in the U.S.

Whatever the norms, sadly and consistently the primary victims of them have always been and still are female. Progress has been made toward acceptance of a wider standard of attractiveness, but from my conversations with young women, the body shaming continues.

My concern in reflecting on this pattern is not particularly about progress – or lack thereof – in the images our society holds up as desirable for girls. Rather I am interested in how tenacious are the often illusory images we hold of ourselves. How can I look at pictures of my young self and see an attractive and shapely woman, while simultaneously still vividly inhabiting the fat and unacceptable body self I experienced at that time? Reason is insufficient to erase emotions.

Hmm, this is the second time in recent weeks that I’ve encountered a situation in which reason and feeling collide – and feeling dominates. Advice given to any professional working with people who are upset or more seriously emotionally disturbed is consistently to not argue with their faulty conclusions but rather to focus on creating an atmosphere of safety and trust. The first step to doing so generally involves acknowledging their feelings. Therapists working with couples usually set parameters for communication during sessions that begin with instructions to listen to the feelings being expressed and refrain from saying any of these are wrong. Feelings are what they are. They tend to gain in power by being denied. To change someone’s feelings about a situation (or past self image) it is useless to reason that the feeling is wrong.

What does seem to have power to alter feelings is new experience perceived from a new framework which can be related back to the earlier events. In my case, the first new experience I recall occurred when I was visiting with relatives of my then husband in Cincinnati. Mel was what is now called “a person of color” with Native American, black and white genetics, whose extended family lived within the culture of Black Americans. As I left the room where we had all been sitting I heard Mel’s aunt remark that I had “big old fine pretty legs” in a tone of appreciative praise. Those “big” legs were then the primary source of my negative body image, in conjunction with the hips to which they were attached. The emotional impact of that statement was so strong that I can, still now, feel myself sitting in the bathroom to which I had headed, trying to connect what I heard with what I felt and totally unable to see myself as Mel’s aunt evidently saw me.

Over the years, feedback from people whom I trust has helped me evolve a rather more positive self image though it is still a work in process, as evidenced by the latest realization – that I am now very much as I was 55 years ago when I felt so unacceptably large. Most days now I can look in the mirror and feel good about myself. That I am a size and shape admired by my husband certainly helps.

So I presently feel good about the same outer physical condition (objective reality) that once made me feel uncomfortable and shamed. Nothing has changed, according to mind; everything has changed according to emotion.

Yet we wonder why, across a wide range of areas, belief based on feelings is so impossible to alter with rational argument!

Instead of “I think therefore I am”, we manifest “I feel therefore I know it to be true.”

So much for the illusion of rational humanity being – because we can reason – at the top of the evolutionary chain.

Changing Direction

April 7, 2018

With a frequency perhaps greater than experienced by some of my peers, I come to a point in whatever I am doing professionally that is not burnout, but close to boredom. When the challenge of mastering a line of work wears off, I find myself looking around for what to do next or differently. Over the years, that point has come in conjunction with other changes in my life circumstances, enabling me to shift from education research to paralegal, program manager in state government to college psychology teacher, home health manager to trainer to care coordinator with an MCO. Along the way i’ve had a private practice as a licensed mental health counselor, become a CPR instructor, written (but not published) three books, published 4 years of weekly columns in local newspapers and sold my jewelry designs at craft fairs. I’ve also plastered houses, laid flagstone floors, raised various animals for food, and at one point was making 40 loaves of bread a week by hand, for sale to an established list of customers.

The position I’ve held longest was as regional manager of a home health agency. I was simultaneously a case manager for one of the Medicaid programs the agency served. It still amazes me that I kept at it for more than 12 years, the second time around (I built the branch for 5 years, left for three, then accepted the urgent request to rejoin the agency.) That second twelve year period was a lesson in endurance, and set me a challenge of finding new ways to engage in order to keep my interest intact. It also exhausted my willingness to be “in charge” of anyone else’s performance.

My present employment meets virtually all my recognized requirements, enabling me to continue with full time work at an age where most of my peers have retired. I work from home, I am engaged one on one with clients, I am not subject to onerous supervision so long as I complete my work by the required deadlines, and I can set my own schedule within the broad guidelines of being “at work” the common Monday to Friday week. I’ve been able to participate in pilot studies of new technology and had my recommendations welcomed, for the new database support system being developed. I’ve been satisfied with the work for more than 4 years, and expect to continue with it for several more  – but I also recognize I’ve come to another of those “it’s getting to be same old same old” points.

I have read the many studies that stress the importance of pursuing a passion into one’s older years to support the retention of health and to encourage enjoyment of later life. From my early childhood, I have carried within me an awareness that I am fated to be long lived.  My relatively recent assumption of new family responsibilities gives added importance to being productive and engaged through those years.

Most of my choices of employment so far have been limited by my decision to respect requirements imposed by others in my life. When I would, for example, have sought work outside the U.S., I did not feel free to pick up and go. There are similar constraints now on my choices, though not anyone telling me I cannot do whatever it is I decide I want to pursue.

Instead, my challenge is to identify what might catch and keep my interest for a long enough period to see me through my remaining years. Several friends from whom I’ve solicited input have posed questions to help me.

a. “Is there something you’ve always wanted to do but the time wasn’t right?”

b. “What does your spiritual path tell you about how to move onward?”

c. “What floats your boat?”

I’ve also been gifted with observations from those who know me well.

d. “You come alive in the classroom, or any teaching setting.”

e. “For you I sense that the answer lies in one on one relationships.”

f. “You are uniquely skilled at channeling your spiritual awareness in ways that benefit others.”

My spiritual Teacher instructs that, to implement a new direction, I should not get too specific. Better to create a framework and then be patient and let the Master fill in the details. That is essentially how I landed in my present employment, after 18 months of searching and applying for whatever became available. So I am now seeking to identify the elements of the new framework. I already know they include at least the following:

  1. Something I can prepare for while still employed in my present job
  2. Something that in one way or another involves teaching
  3. Something that gives me the opportunity to travel, though not necessarily requiring that I live for an extended time elsewhere – I really do like living in northern New Mexico!
  4. Something that stretches my mind, requires me to learn a new skill, or significantly deepen my understanding of a topic I’ve studied
  5. Something that lies within my current physical capacities and can be continued if/as these slowly diminish with age

More than a hobby, but not such a new career as to require years of study to make the switch.

I’m mostly pleased that the question “what have you always wanted to do but not been able to?” doesn’t seem to have an answer. Pleased because I recognize that I have in fact done most of the things I really wanted to, slightly dismayed because I am not helped now with any nudges towards my next steps.

Whatever emerges as my eventual new passion, the process of seeking it has already brought benefits. Where I had been thinking that most of my choices have been constrained and limited by others, I now recognize that at the important points I have pushed through obstacles and gone for what I wanted. Just a few examples include: finding a way to continue horseback riding while living in the heart of Paris, making my way to New Mexico despite strong parental opposition, committing to relationships that have enabled my growth despite societal pressure to avoid them, and not letting lack of formal training in an area keep me from taking on work in that discipline.

Asked in a survey of alumni from my college what was the greatest benefit of my Swarthmore education, I answered immediately that it taught me how to learn anything I wished to. It taught me to think. It gave me the opportunity to experience accomplishment and to know that I have a good mind I can use to master any subject I wish to learn.

That mind will have its role implementing the details of whatever new direction my life takes. Mind will have to wait, however, until my heart, spirit, Soul perceives the direction the Master will prepare for me. And the ego-I must wait patiently for the frame outlined above to have its details filled in by a Soul much wiser than the most highly trained mind.

In the meantime, today was a sunny spring day and perfect for a trip to Santa Fe to do errands and to take a walk up Canyon Road. To everything its appointed time.

Baraka Bashad, may the Blessings Be.

Stress-Hardening

March 10, 2018

I recently attended a two-day training on Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) which covered the processes for defusing and for debriefing groups of people who have been involved in or exposed to a traumatic event (school shooting, natural disaster, first responders to an accident). The majority of trainees were chaplains working for my employer, a large MCO with multiple hospital facilities and clinics around the state. Others of us were nurses employed in those hospitals, just a few like me “oddballs” from other employment roles. I had taken the two years ago, so this was a re-certification/refresher but it turned out to be a quite new experience nonetheless.

Not because the material has changed – it hasn’t. I am in a much different mental/emotional space than two years ago, partially because of the unexpected and somewhat stressful recent change in my personal circumstances. The instructor warned us at the start of the class that some of the exercises might bring up aspects of our past life experience. I did not anticipate that the training would take me back so far into my past – to 1980 and the New Mexico prison riot that occurred on February 2nd of that year.

For that trauma, I had no such thing as incident debriefing, no opportunity for defusing of the strong emotions generated by the events; whatever working through I accomplished was done on my own. The aspect of that experience which became salient during the training was my response of a strengthened commitment to speaking out on behalf of what I believe it is important to emphasize in our communal life. In my own case I think I settled on causes that show respect for all persons and implementation of fairness and justice in interpersonal and group interactions. I recognize, however, that a similar experience could push another individual to settle just as firmly into a commitment to a path of vengeance.

From the perspective of trauma-hardened reaction, might one better understand the deep divides within our society today? Is it possible that too many of us have experienced (possibly unrecognized) traumas, not had the benefit of any sort of defusing or debriefing, and moved on into strongly held positions regarding values and actions as a means of “getting past” the traumatic events?

Putting things behind us without examining them and understanding their effects is a common reaction, but evidence proves it is not a particularly healthy one. The unexamined or un-dealt-with issues have a way of recurring. Classic example being the person who gets through the death of a parent seemingly without problems and then falls apart a year later when a pet dies.

A number of my friends have chosen, of late, to try to understand people who hold opposing views on the social issues creating so much conflict in our society these days. They are attempting to reach across the divides, to find common ground, to offer understanding, to create a cognitive (thought) framework for how divergent belief systems can be reconciled. While I applaud the motivation behind the effort, I have reservations about their likelihood of success. Not success at grasping a divergent view, but serious question as to whether any reconciliation can be achieved.

Reconciliation requires not just a cognitive but also an emotional shift, and one strong lesson from the critical incident stress management training was that the cognitive and emotional realms are two very different levels of response to trauma. In counseling, one technique often used to help troubled individuals is a cognitive re-framing, which can lead to a shift in emotional response. If I have experienced non-communication as disrespect, but learn that the lack of communication was the result of a technical failure (Internet shut off by a controlling government), the expectation is that I will then be able to free myself from the hurt and anger associated with feeling disrespected.

That kind of framework shift does seem to work in a broad-brush way. Indeed, I just read an article today about the importance of words as framing perspective. An example was asking if you would rather be in a relationship that ends, or that breaks up? Another question pertained to how many people would gamble with $50 if they would lose $30, versus would gamble the money if they knew they could keep $20. Although the end result, a minimum of $20 in hand, was the same, far more people would gamble to “avoid losing $30” than would gamble when they knew they could keep $20.

What the CISM training brought out by contrast is that when dealing with traumatic events, there is frequently a very deep divide between cognitive and emotional domains. While the defusing and debriefing techniques do initiate a cognitive re-framing of the experiences, it is a given that processing reactions to trauma will take time, and may include a variety of feelings and behaviors that are totally unfamiliar to the individual experiencing them.

When the traumatized individual has the benefit of a debriefing or subsequent mental health counseling, the outcome can be both reassurance that the unfamiliar reactions are not abnormal, and a healthy resolution of the anger, fear and other harsh emotions the trauma has brought up. Too often though, we experience trauma without any, or adequate, support. Is it any wonder, then, that we end up locked into tightly held beliefs or behavior patterns that do not allow us to understand, let alone accept, others different from ourselves?

The timing of the CISM training has served me well, to expose within me the residue of an unresolved divide between cognitive understanding and emotional response to multiple earlier traumas that have cumulatively established me in a pattern of somewhat set beliefs. My spiritual path would label these sanskaras, lifelong patterns of thought, values, beliefs that are rarely if ever recognized or examined – the stuff of which self-concepts are made. To reach the goal of self and God-self realization one must recognize and detach oneself from the illusion that the Self is the same as that mental self-concept. Not an easy process. Who and what am I, if I am not the collection of values and beliefs that have directed my behavior throughout my life?

I don’t at this point have any answer to that question; I do know that the answer is not something of which I can have any idea. Ideas are mental elements, and the Self is not knowable through mentation.

Which refers me back to my recognition during the CISM training that the divide between cognition and emotion can be huge, sometimes unbridgeable, and a metaphor for the divide between a mental concept of self and our true Soul self. Just as we benefit from a facilitator to help us bring the two parts of our response to trauma into perspective and balance, we need a qualified teacher to help us clarify what we are  – and are not – as spiritual beings. Without the facilitator we risk getting trapped into rigid belief and behavior patterns that move us past, but do not resolve, trauma. Without a spiritual teacher we risk getting stuck on the karmic wheel of life , repeating the same lessons over and over because we do not learn from them.

Once again, I remind myself that my spiritual Master instructs his students that “recognition is enough”. We do not have to ‘fix’ what we see is wrong, indeed we cannot do so. We do need to see an issue clearly, recognize it as another of the mental illusions we wish to shed, and then detach, leaving the work of removal to be done on us, for us, through us but not by us.

Now why does something so easy so often seem so hard?


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