Archive for the ‘Living and Learning’ Category

Intolerance

January 20, 2019

Yes, the government shutdown has affected me personally.

No details will be provided.

Yes, all the controversy surrounding this year’s Women’s March has affected me personally.

No details will be provided.

Yes, the plethora of open demonstrations of intolerance, racism, bias and hate by groups and individuals over the past year have affected me personally.

No details will be provided.

Because one of the most pernicious dangers of the current embrace of extremism in the U.S. is to stifle discourse, and I am not immune to the fear of reprisal from one or another of the governmental or private entities that would use those details against me, if I were to provide them.

I note a few facts. In the controversy surrounding this year’s Women’s March, and the perceived anti-Semitism of some of its national leaders, there was an astounding lack of recognition that not all Jews are white. There are Ethiopian Jews, and other black-skinned Jews from a range of countries. There are Hispanic Jews, with their own language, Ladino, that is an amalgam of Hebrew and Spanish, just as Yiddish is an amalgam of Hebrew and German. When I was just barely into my teens in the mid-1950’s I was taken to a number of historic sites in Manila, including both churches and an already 100 year old by then synagogue in Manila, learning that there were Filipino Jews and Chinese Jews who attended, as well as the European Jews who had fled Nazism by going east instead of west.

A white teen choosing to wear a Chinese dress to her senior prom, because she thinks it is a beautiful style, is attacked online. “Cultural appropriation!” is screamed at her. Would that  denunciation be leveled at a Black or Native girl who did the same? Or is it only white skin that made her action offensive to some?

When I go to a party wearing the traditional Cameroonian clothing gifted to me by my husband when he returned from his trip home last year, will someone look at me with anger because my skin is not black? Based on experience from earlier in my life I can predict that the answer will be yes. A long time ago in Boston, shopping in a store that catered to the African American population, to get a dashiki for my then husband who also was dark skinned, the store owner refused to sell to me and ran me out of her shop, accusing me of “taking our men like you took everything else from us.”

I can understand, while not accepting, her anger. My husband had asked for the dashiki to wear to an event where he would be performing. He was genetically equal parts black, Native American and white. Was he guilty of cultural appropriation, even though the term was not “on the radar” forty years ago?

I don’t understand, and also do not accept, any leaders encouraging their followers to judge people by such surface traits as skin color, clothing choices, language preference, use of particular terms (like Negro, black, Black or African American), place of birth, age, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. (You betray your age as comparable to mine if you just imaged Yul Brenner.)

But mine seems to be a minority voice these days, when I speak up for tolerance,  understanding and efforts toward bi- or multi-partisanship. I recently was cut out of the life of a woman with whom I have had a 30 year quasi-family relationship, apparently because I appeared to her to have taken the side “against” her, when what I did was choose not to take sides at all. Between “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and “if you’re not with me you’re against me”, there is no room left for disengagement, reflection, tolerance, or occasionally for a carefully judged neutrality.

Yes, I agree there are many situations where a clear right/wrong demarcation needs to be upheld. Preaching/teaching hate is wrong, period. (I won’t soften that statement with an appeasing “in my opinion.”) Ignoring abuse, starvation, the effects of natural disasters is wrong – again not minimized by being only an opinion. What is a matter of opinion, in my opinion, is how one chooses to respond to these wrongs.

In my opinion, it is wrong to shut off/shut out the voices of reason, to block communication, to label and blame based on misperceived differences and unexamined biases. And it is particularly wrong to enshrine those blocks and biases in government and law as has been happening, and looks likely to be continuing, in the upcoming Supreme Court session.

I have no answers, and sadly little optimism for the next few years, outside what I can do in my own immediate circle, to continue to embody the values I espouse. I wish it were otherwise.

My lack of optimism most probably explains the relative infrequency of posts, of late. Or maybe I am only shut down by the gray, cold depths of winter?

 

Amends

November 23, 2018

This is the time when we are supposed to be focused on gratitude, appreciation for the gifts we enjoy, however big or small they may be. I have much for which I am truly thankful, not just on this holiday designated for giving thanks, but every day, day in and day out. Far more than I can or care to enumerate here.

The topic of my recent contemplations has not been all those reasons for gratitude. Instead, I have been reflecting on the difference between patience and tolerance. Also the unacceptable-to-me attitude that ugly behavior must be forgiven whenever the transgressor bothers to say “sorry”.

Sorry, but sorry isn’t good enough. I have no patience with such facile, mostly empty efforts to relieve guilt, and I have even less tolerance for pretending otherwise.

There is great wisdom in the Twelve Step philosophy, whether or not one needs the program to recover from alcoholism or other addictions. The key to recovery is stated as dependent on taking stock, recognizing what harm one has caused, and not just apologizing but making amends. Not just apologizing, but taking concrete steps to right the wrongs one has done, and persisting in this effort long enough to prove that it is sincere.

I find little difficulty being patient with someone who has not yet learned, or who through illness has lost the capacity, to be respectful of others. I tolerate behavior in these circumstances to which I would otherwise not expose myself. Sort of a “no harm, no foul” situation.

Not so when the person behaving disrespectfully not only knows what he/she is doing, but presents him/herself as an upright, righteous – sorry but it’s the religion that most commonly has adherents who boast of this status – “good Christian”. The uprightness is a sham, the righteous claim is actually self-righteousness, and there is nothing either good or truly Christian in the conduct, most notably when the individual pretends apology with a few standard words and then demands forgiveness as a rightful reward for the verbal “sorry”.

Am I bitter and unforgiving? In this instance, you bet I am.

(Also annoyed at the cumbersome he/she but unwilling to give in to using the gender neutral they which has become the go to alternative.)

I have no patience with hypocrisy, and choose not to be tolerant of insincerity masquerading as regret. When I have wronged someone, especially if I have done so inadvertently, and I am sorry for my action, I start the process of apology by changing my actions – I begin to make amends. Naturally I hope that my apology will be accepted but I don’t expect that to be the case immediately. When harm has been done, it takes time and consistently changed experience for the hurt to heal.

Family caring for a  – usually parent – with advanced dementia say the most difficult aspect of that care is not being recognized by the parent. It hurts to have an entire life, one’s shared history, erased. The caregivers learn to tolerate that pain, and to practice patience with the parent, repeating and repeating and reintroducing themselves day after day, sometimes each hour or even each minute. It is not an easy learning process for most caregivers. We do not readily release our need to be recognized, acknowledged, known by those with whom we have been close. Over time, most of these caregivers do let go of hope that things can be returned to “normal” and accept that the dementia has indelibly altered their relationship. A new one can be created, often new on a daily basis, that is enjoyable in a different way.

Absent dementia, there is little that will persuade any of us that others cannot change. We incarcerate to punish but also from a belief that negative consequences will teach the need to alter behavior. We sometimes lessen the punishment if the transgressor demonstrates true regret and an understanding of the harm done. In more enlightened systems, we may allow these latter felons to make amends in a meaningful fashion instead of being locked away. In all cases, we believe that the individual can and should change behavior in future.

Other mental illnesses than dementia prevent people from understanding how their actions cause harm. Absent a mental health diagnosis, we expect that others know what they are doing, and we require that they accept responsibility for their actions. Rightly so.

(It seems to me that much anger in the body politic these days arises from failure of those who can and should be doing so, holding the president accountable for the harm he has done or, among another faction, from failure to recognize that his mental state puts him into the category of illness which demands he be excused from being held responsible, but removed from his position.)

Being held responsible brings us back to amends – actions that reveal one has accepted responsibility for harm and has set out to restore balance and a positive tone to a relationship or situation. I try to be someone who has patience with others and tolerates a fair amount of less-than-pleasing behavior while providing feedback, in hopes of seeing them grow in understanding and change their conduct. Being that person also means that a time does come when I accept that I am not being heard, change is most unlikely and I must cease to interact. No more patience, no more tolerance, no more effort on my part to sustain a relationship, teach new behavior, or otherwise intervene to save the offender from his/her consequences. Time for tough love.

The tough love approach has much in common, to my mind, with the Twelve Step program in that it puts responsibility on the doer, whether actor or enabler, to make changes. Parents using tough love change the nature of supports for their child when they stop rescuing, just as those close to a substance abuser stop enabling the abuse behavior when they take responsibility for, and alter, their own part in the cycle. It then falls to the person whose conduct is failing, to live with their own consequences. If/when there is recognition of a need to change, then amends become possible, and a healing or restoration of relationship may follow.

In both processes, the “make amends” step takes time. Trust must be rebuilt and does not come from a single “sorry”, or even from a stream of them. Actions most definitely speak louder than words in this case. The offender needs to accept that there may never be a restored relationship, that the best to be achieved may just be tolerance of some limited interaction. It becomes the offender’s role to be patient, and persistent in showing respect, regret and a sincere desire for forgiveness.

I have worked with newly released prisoners, and I have stayed in touch with some of them for years afterward, as they fit themselves back into family lives, jobs, and society in the positive way incarceration is supposed to encourage them to learn. (The fact that our Corrections Departments so rarely correct behavior is a sidetrack I do not intend to follow at the moment.) My focus is on the experience of those who do rectify their conduct, and “fly right” from the time of their release. They tell me that ten, fifteen, even twenty years later, their history of criminal conviction does not disappear, but rather continues to require acknowledgment, explanation, and proof of change. “I find myself making amends to people who weren’t even born when I went to prison, for the harm my actions did to the community they were born into.” Said without resentment, but rather with an odd sense of wonder at how consequential seemingly inconsequential acts can be.

I seek to be tolerant of incapacity, and patient in giving guidance and support while learning goes on, but also clear-sighted to recognize when the time has come to put aside these behaviors and put consequences squarely on the head of the person whose conduct is unacceptable. I strive to also then be able to recognize a sincerely repentant individual offering to make meaningful amends, as I strive also to make amends when and where needed, for actions of my own that were hurtful.

Anything less – like a pasted over pretense of social chit-chat masquerading as apology and forgiveness – is an hypocrisy with which I refuse to engage. 

Sorry for that, but so it is.

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.

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

Cross-Cultural Respect

May 1, 2018

It looks like I can no longer avoid wading into the culture wars. Not that I couldn’t continue to ignore most aspects of the current, often ugly, social debate but that I find myself up against a personal limit, the same one that requires that on occasion, no matter the cost, I “speak truth to power.” Some actions cannot be let go without objection.

I just read an opinion piece  by Josh Campbell entitled “An FBI Director, Two Prosecutors and a Priest Walk into a Bar.” It links James Comey, Preet Bharara, Sally Yates, and Chaplain Patrick Conroy as casualties of, or in his view heroes of, ethical public service in the current era of self-serving lack of moral character. They each stood up to political pressure asking them to compromise principles and standards that have a long and respected history, and which are now under attack.

The issue that has pushed me to write is not political in this sense, but it is in its own way a matter that calls for “drawing a line in the sand” of what has become the desert of cross-cultural discourse. The other article I read this morning was the account of a Caucasian Utah high school teen who chose to wear a traditional Chinese dress to her senior prom, and posted pictures on Twitter that included one in which she posed with friends with their hands together in a traditional Asian gesture of respect. Keziah Daum is, from the photos, a lovely young woman who garnered many thousand followers on Twitter but also an onslaught of ugly accusations of “closet racism” and “cultural appropriation”. She defended herself well, and I am not writing to add to that defense, but to take on the – sorry I find no other word for it than “idiocy” of the concept of cultural appropriation.

I am Caucasian, of Jewish heritage, with a German-born father and a Russian-born maternal grandfather. I grew up living in Vietnam and France, have been married to a mixed Black and Native American man, a New Mexican Hispanic and am now married to an African from Cameroon. I speak several languages, cook cuisines from many more countries, and have enjoyed a lifetime of learning other cultures. I have taken comparative religion courses, attended ceremonies in many different churches, temples, synagogues and other places of worship. In homes around the world, and with students studying locally from dozens of different countries, I have shared  meals, conversation, traditions and customs that have helped us all to bridge the differences we were raised with. It has been a rich and enriching life experience.

How can anyone be so narrow-minded as to critique wearing a dress from a different culture, opening a restaurant that serves food not native to the upbringing of the owner, performing a gesture of respect that is not usually made by a Westerner, or any other honest expression of appreciation for an aspect of another culture? Would the protesters against the artificial concept of cultural appropriation want to see us all in our little isolated boxes, unknowing of and uncaring about the tastes and talents and costumes of any other group? Taken to its logical conclusion, if I cannot cook your food, speak your dialect, wear your clothes, to whom will you show them off, market them, or communicate?

Perhaps that is in fact what is desired – that we all cease to communicate and descend into anarchy? The loudest voices now seem to be declaring, “My way or the highway” and castigating anyone who tries to show appreciation for a blended approach to cultures.

I refuse to let any accusation of so called cultural appropriation pass unchallenged. In fact, I challenge the concept of cultural appropriation altogether, stating that it is a fallacy and an artificial, meaningless construct, a distortion of cultural appreciation that should not be given countenance in our society.

Happily I am not on Twitter and rarely look at Facebook, so if I now become subject to vitriol, I won’t know it. This is far from the first time I will have spoken up when I’ve felt it necessary. I rather doubt it will be the last. I also do not doubt that I will survive and continue to thrive. For certain, I am expressing Truth as I perceive it, and that is always a rewarding endeavor.

Three cheers for Keziah Daum and all who, like her, are able to appreciate, enjoy and share in aspects of cultures with which they were not raised!

April 8, 2018

Into the silence of my contemplation this morning, one hen crowed persistently for a full minute, announcing with great pride her performance of a natural body function – producing an egg. She seemed the epitome of egoistic mind, trying to claim credit for the creativity that flows out from Soul in what is essentially a natural function, if only we remove the veils that blind us to the true source of our being.

Mind seeks to be credited with accomplishments. Soul is happy being. My contemplation practice helps me stop trying to accomplish, and start living in the moment. Experience is teaching me that if I fully embrace the present the future will unfold exactly as it should. Memory nags at me (in my father’s voice) to plan ahead, prepare for what may happen so that it can be managed well when the anticipated future arrives – or if it does not because some unanticipated event intervenes. Ego wants to crow its skill at preparing for all possible events. Soul prefers to rest in the certainty that what is meant to be will be, and will be precisely what is needed for my continued growth and learning.

My balancing act as I try to reconcile the pull of these contrasting approaches to my days in turn brings my attention to the importance of finding a middle space, a meeting place in the current broader political environment. It seems truly dire, that only extremism is now acceptable. I see and hear no voice speaking of meeting social needs through compromise, cooperation, or (attention, dirty words coming) pragmatic horse-trading. If a bill in Congress does not cover all 10 demands of one party, then we are harangued to chastise our representatives who voted for the final bill that did include 7 of those demands. We are becoming a society of all or nothing, and the near certain result will be nothing, since a fundamental principle of democracy is compromise – something for everyone, rather than everything for only one group.

I am Caucasian (Anglo in local parlance). I have lived in northern New Mexico for 45 years, more than 25 of those years married to a now deceased Hispanic native of the state. I cook many cuisines including New Mexico/Spanish dishes. I have thought at times that I would like to open a restaurant, offering an eclectic variety of dishes. Now I wonder if I would be “allowed” to do so in our current partisan society, after I read that an Anglo was attacked for “cultural appropriation” when he opened a Mexican restaurant in an East Coast city.

When did appreciation for cultures other than one’s own become a hostile act?

What new societal taboo am I violating, wearing the traditional African dress my  husband brought back for me from his recent trip home to Cameroon?

Where are the voices speaking up for cooperation, coordination, and that all but forgotten Quaker concept of consensus?

At times I feel like a lone voice crying in a wilderness of partisan rants, but I know that feeling comes from a mental assessment of the outer world around me. As soon as I return my attention inward, I hear the warm voice of Soul’s sharing and caring, and know this to be Truth.  My lesson brought from the contemplation is that while partisan egos may crow, I can ignore them as I did the hen, focusing instead on living Truth as fully as I am able.  What is meant to be will be. I just need to do my part here and now.

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.

Talk to Me

March 21, 2018

I’ve long thought, and counselors generally agree, that good communication between partners is one of the most essential elements of a solid and lasting relationship. Love may be the motivation to engage, but silent loving will not sustain a marriage. My recent uncomfortable experience of an extended period of limited, fractured or non-existent communication proved to me just how accurately I had previously perceived the importance of open, honest, considered, thoughtful sharing.

Might the documented health benefits of pet ownership in older people living alone be connected to the fact that most such individuals talk to their pets? And many are certain the pets answer them with meaningful albeit non-verbal communication.

I’ve come away from the past six weeks wiser about my own inner dynamics: my deepest fears, my ability to face those fears, the places where my ego “sticks” and doesn’t want to let go, let God, forgive and forget. Over the course of my life I’ve mostly been flexible in my interactions with people, accommodating to idiosyncratic behavior. Many of my clients have said they never expected to feel so comfortable with someone demonstrably different than they, but that I have made them forget those differences. Some few behaviors, I have now earned, I am not easily able to disregard or forgive.

And I learned a lot about the limits of using reasoning to override, direct, or temper emotions. In so doing, I think I have come away with an improved perception of my seriously emotionally disturbed mother. Her fears were so profound and pervasive, and flipped into anger so readily, that there was no opportunity for reason to affect her feelings and behavior. Undiagnosed, untreated, she navigated her way through a flood of emotions for which she had no words, so she erupted into brutal anger “over nothing.”

My father’s response was to withdraw – duck and cover – until her eruption subsided. Which left me to bear the brunt of her anger, whether some action of mine was the trigger, or I was just the handy scapegoat for anger she couldn’t otherwise express at her employer, at my father, at the repairman who arrived two hours later than expected, at the pot that burned supper, at the neighbor’s barking dog… You can see the picture without my drawing it out further.

Inability to communicate. Interruptions to communication. Fear of communication. It doesn’t matter what creates the barrier – if that barrier is real, it is highly destructive of relationship.

I am, therefore immensely grateful that willingness to share and to listen and to explain and to understand are now proven core qualities in my marriage. The misunderstanding that arose inevitably from the circumstances of our separation took less than 24 hours of being back together to resolve. The resolution brought new understanding, altered perspectives, new goals and what feels, on my side, like a more realistic appraisal of where I still have some work to do involving trust in myself and in my right to be happy, without having to prove or earn or guard or control the circumstances of that produce my happiness.

I am grateful for the lessons learned – with just a tiny voice whispering that it would have been nice if those lessons could have been taught a tad less harshly. I must conclude that my ego is most stubbornly determined to remain in charge and needed to be “hit upside the head with a 2×4” as the saying goes. Okay, my attention has been brought around to where it needs to be, I am listening to what my partner has learned and communicating my own learning. We are both re-balancing ourselves within our spiritual center, placing ego away to the side where it belongs.

It does feel good to be moving forward in harmony once more!


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