Get in the Arena

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Yesterday I carved out time from my new job to return to my previous workplace and attend graduation for the last group of men to complete a program that has been in place for 21 years. I worked directly with part of the group through most of the time they were there. Just thinking about the experience, before and after, elicits a range of emotions, from sadness to pride, but I welcomed the opportunity to speak at the ceremony. Just days before, I picked up a book I purchased months ago, and what I read prompted my words to them. This is what I had to say:

“This week I started reading a book called Rising Strong, by Brené Brown, PhD. The timing of her words couldn’t have been better, because as I read, I thought of you and what I wanted to say to you as you complete this program and move forward with your lives.

She quoted from a famous speech, “Man in the Arena,” by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man       stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; . . . who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

She continues to focus on the “ugly details” of failing – imagining that we are face down. The crowd may be silent, or booing, or all we can hear is the voice of someone telling us to get up and move on. We tend to think of arenas as some grand event, but these facedown moments can be small ones like our child lying to us about hitting a sibling or a disappointment at work or a “we chose someone else” call after a job interview – basically any moment where we risked showing up and being seen – feeling awkward trying something new, tough parenting moments, being in love, or sharing with your probation officer that you are craving that substance that got you into a world of hurt. She pondered the process of rising strong, of staggering to our feet and finding the courage to try again. What do the people who keep going have in common?

Her research has led her to believe that slowing down the rising and falling process is the key. To cultivate an awareness of the choices that are in front of us in the moments of discomfort and hurt. To take the time to weigh the consequences of those choices, and she has learned that incorporating storytelling into her research has been the most beneficial. And that is part of what you have been doing here for the last few months.

While in this program, you have been asked to share your stories, to become vulnerable. I know that wasn’t easy, because many of you clearly expressed your desire to avoid the pain of being vulnerable, particularly in this setting. I get that. But I watched something happen to you and your peers as you shared. You each grew – some with baby steps, others with giant leaps – in understanding where or why you had moments of failure, thoughts of how you could or would change to avoid that failure in the future, expressions of understanding why a peer is the way he is, and offering acknowledgement for the pain someone else had survived. It was truly amazing to see and I was honored that you trusted me in those moments.

Many of the stories I heard were about huge efforts to avoid feeling pain – whether extreme pain inflicted on you, knowing you hurt others, or the disappointment of neglect – and the failures were acting out the hurt, sometimes on others. Now it’s time to move forward. To be vulnerable with the people who count in your life. Here are the three truths you can take with you from this quote:

Get in the arena. You can choose courage or comfort. One or the other. You can’t have them both at the same time. Your acquaintances who are still using out there? They are choosing the easy way of blocking out pain rather than dealing with it. I’m not saying their lives are easy, but they are choosing what they know, what has become familiar. You know something different now. Take this new experience and build on it.

Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when you have no control over the outcome. It really is the greatest expression of courage, not weakness. Being vulnerable with your family, or your probation officer, to ask for help and support. Will you have people say “no?” Sure. But it’s their loss when you go on to experience success without them. That is courage.

A lot of cheap seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor. They are always ready to offer put-downs or call you lame for trying to follow probation guidelines or stay sober. If they’re not interested in getting in the game and fighting for their lives, what they have to say about you means nothing. Can you still care and hope they find a way to change? Absolutely, but don’t let their criticisms from the sidelines define you. Will it take time for your family members or sober friends to trust you again? Absolutely. You’ve made promises to them before that have been broken. Prove by your actions that you want to regain their respect. That is courage. And you may be thinking you got the short end of the stick being the last group, with staff leaving and not getting everything  previous groups have gotten. But you’re here at the finish line, despite the additional challenges. That is courage.

In light of the upcoming championship games for my favorite sport of basketball: Get out there in the game, and play with all the courage you can muster. When you trip or foul or miss a 3-pointer, take a little timeout, think through your choices, talk with your coach, get back in the game with courage, and crush it.” (CHEERS TO KENTUCKY!)

I must add, that for years I felt like I was sitting on the sidelines, cheering for others, but afraid to play. Waiting for someone to send me in. Afraid of the criticism. Afraid to fall on my face. Afraid the voice in my head that told me I was not good enough was correct. Somehow I mustered up the courage to get back in the game. To return to school and finish a college degree at age 49. I can tell you – it feels infinitely better playing the game and crushing it!

 

9 Things I Won’t Miss and 4 Things I Will Miss From My Last Job

jail-cellThis week I started a new job after spending the last 4.5 years working as a social worker/ counselor in a county jail-based substance abuse program, run under the direction of the local Sheriff’s office. I am proud of the work I was doing, helping people take a hard look at what got them to this point, see their own potential, and plan the changes that might keep them from returning to alcohol or drugs (and incarceration) as a coping skill. After 21 years of significant success, the powers-that-be decided to hand over substance abuse treatment to the medical and mental health entity, ending the program as it is, and eventually presenting the dreaded pink slips to any personnel who haven’t found other employment. Although I feel sadness and disappointment for the ending of this chapter of my life and career, particularly in this manner, I accept the opportunity to stretch and grow in other areas as I move forward. Saying “so long” is never easy, and it has been an emotional week. This tongue-in-cheek post is meant to lighten up my own mood as much as it is to give a somewhat humorous but real peek into the life of those who work behind the walls and barbed-wire.

I won’t miss:

Having to carry a see-through purse/bag. I believe this is self-explanatory; however, “transparency” has a whole new meaning when you have to choose a small plastic purse that fits inside your “outside” purse, just to make sure you don’t ever leave behind something you really need while making sure you aren’t carrying “contraband.”

Hearing constant two-way radio chatter. This may not have bothered others, but it was like nails-on-the-chalkboard to this INFJ, who gets more work done and renewed mentally and emotionally in a quiet atmosphere.

Clanging of sliders and clicking of doors. Anyone watch Law &  Order? You know that sound at the beginning of the show, and between scenes? Yes, kind of like that. Any efforts to see clients in their housing unit means you hear that. You get used to it after 4.5 years, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Getting caught in a sally port and forgotten. In the event you’ve never had the experience of being incarcerated, volunteered in, or visited someone in jail or prison, a sally port could be described as a small enclosed hallway between two steel sliding doors. Someone far away at a control panel lets you in from one side and closes that side before opening the other. I was never stranded between the two for more than 5-10 minutes, but that can seem like an eternity when you’re claustrophobic! Yikes!

Eating every lunch out of plastic or paper containers and with plastic utensils. The building where programs and our offices were positioned was within a secure area. This was convenient for seeing clients, but limited us from using ceramic plates and cups or metal utensils. Not the end of the world, I know, but definitely inconvenient for potlucks and cutting or stabbing leftover steak you bring from home. And try to cut a large graduation celebration cake with a spatula! Messy is an understatement.

Multiple county-and-agency-wide emails daily that don’t pertain to me. At all. It remains to be seen if this is only true of a large local government. Nonetheless, it is aggravating, particularly when you return from vacation and most of what you received is to be deleted. If you don’t, you might get that cleanup-your-mailbox warning.

Intercom announcements that echo so much they can’t be understood and seemingly go on forever. I’m sure that much of this issue is due to the concrete structure and design of the buildings, but when you are straining to assess a client and talk over one of the many announcements, you just have to stop and wait it out. (The only loudspeaker “announcement” I appreciated was one clear morning I arrived to work and could hear The Star Spangled Banner proclaimed loudly from Tent City. My throat tightened with emotion and pride as I stopped and faced the flag, singing every word.)

Constant awareness for items that are considered contraband for inmates due to their potential to become a weapon. I never had an issue with an inmate attempting to take something they were not to have, but I had to develop an alertness for the potential risk of a pen, marker, scissors (kindergarten blunt-tip ones used in cutting up magazines for vision boards), glue sticks, makeup in your pocket, etc., that might drop or be left behind in the counseling room or the housing unit.

jail-cell-2Disrespect of human beings based on their current setting. This does not apply to everyone, but it is reality. I am no bleeding heart and believe most of us have to accept consequences for choices we have made. When employees (not colleagues) ask why you are helping “these people,” it’s disheartening, as “these people” are getting released to my community. The more tools they have to change, the better chance they have to contribute positively. They may not go out and change this time, but some time in their future they may remember something they learned and choose to change. I have to take that chance.

I will miss:

Working 1st shift hours. Traffic! Need I say more? Okay, I will anyway. The 0630-1430 shift means the commute is significantly shorter and less annoying. After only one week, I’m still working on navigating this maybe-I-should-invest-in-a-jet-pack-or-use-Uber-so-I-can-still-get-something-done traffic! So far, Audible books have saved my sanity.

The experience I received of hearing the stories of clients who are at their lowest point. I am honored to have had clients who trusted me and their group members enough to share traumatic histories in a setting that does not lend itself to this kind of vulnerability. I grew professionally and personally. I am a better counselor and can take this experience with me and build on it.

Hearing from former clients who are seeing success. It’s not for a pat on the back. The clients are doing the hard work, facing all kinds of challenges. More than anything, those updates are an inspiration to continue doing and caring, despite the weariness of the work.

Some super talented colleagues who were and are passionate about what they do. I have learned from their experience and viewpoints, and felt valued by their support and encouragement. We hope to stay connected due to our common field of service, but proximity and crazy schedules make it a huge challenge. They will not be forgotten, and I will definitely miss “killin'” lunch, and continuing to say goodbye each day to a former colleague. Okay, maybe not that last part!

As a preacher’s kid, I never ever imagined, in my wildest dreams, that I would ever work in a jail, much less love it. It’s bittersweet moving on, but my time has not been wasted. In my last meeting with my group, more than one member admitted that they never dreamed of or planned on opening up to a counselor before this experience. What a privilege to have had the opportunity to impact people in a positive way. More opportunities are coming my way.

The Waiting Game

waitingActually, waiting is no game. Waiting in line for coffee. Or arms loaded with potential gifts for loved ones while the customer ahead needs a price check. In traffic attempting to get to work on time or race home. Waiting feels like torture. Particularly when pieces of life are in a holding pattern, circling the landing strip that starts the next leg of the journey. Or maybe like vultures waiting for the next potential meal.

As children, we can’t wait for a birthday, or Christmas, or school to start (or end), or starting high school, or graduation. As young adults, we can’t wait to get to the end of college, or the meaningful relationship, or the dream wedding.

Then there is parenting. When will the baby sit alone, roll over, sleep all night, eat solid food (and stop spitting up), walk, or be done with diapers. When will the toddler understand “no.” When will my child start school, or when will there be a break from helping with homework. I’ll admit I had mixed feelings about the teenager driving – not having to drop off and pick up versus worrying about every minute my child was gone.

Those events pale in comparison to waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop when it has to do with your job and career. Frowns on the faces of supervisors and managers, not-so-subtle hints that budgets are being reduced, rumors of other entities taking over the duties for which you and your colleagues have been responsible – those things can cause ginormous amounts of anxiety and fear. And the waiting game begins. Waiting for job listings, calls or emails to schedule interviews, and the dreaded wait for the “we want to offer you the position” calls – that waiting seems like an eternity. When you’re not the first one offered and you watch colleagues leave one-by-one … It. Is. Painful.

All sorts of negative self-talk can take place, and the longer the wait, the worse it gets. If I allow it. But I can’t. I have to believe I have worked this hard at getting an education, and getting experience, and doing my best work, and showing up every day (never using the allotted sick time, because I hate to let people down or cause them more work) mean something.

Since late September, I have been waiting. And stressing. (And I admit, some negative self-talk – “Why haven’t I heard?” or “Will it be soon enough to take care of my bills?”) When I finally let go of the panic button and started focusing on my record and what I have to offer, things happened. And I didn’t have to take the first offer, even though I was tempted feeling panic, because it didn’t feel like the right fit for me. I declined, and within an hour received the offer that I felt was best for me. It’s the first time in my life, I think, that I held out and waited for God’s direction, rather than rushing and taking something when I thought I needed it.

I’m looking forward to a new adventure next week. I know my time has been well spent in the last few years, and I’m disappointed that more who are in need will not have the same opportunity. I am certainly sad to leave behind great colleagues who have been just as passionate as I about the work we do. But it’s time to stretch and grow, nest in a new place where I can learn and experience more.

If you’re in a holding pattern, waiting and feeling like what you need will never happen, take heart. Your perfect opportunity just isn’t ready yet.

keep-calm

Exercise: 4 Life Lessons

fitness-1677212_1280When I signed up for membership at a new gym a year ago (two months before it opened), I wanted, but wasn’t certain I had the motivation, to get in good shape. If you asked me five years ago about regular exercise, I would have scoffed at the idea. When I showed up on the second day after the gym opened, a trainer showed me around, explaining what was offered. And then … he asked me to fill out a form, putting on paper my goals. After I shared what I wanted to accomplish, he worked his magic spell on me and pressured encouraged me to sign up for personal training. I fell for it, signing up for two sessions per month for nine months, an hour later kicking myself for spending the extra money. But a strange phenomenon has occurred – more than my physical health improved. (I know. Y’all already knew that and I’m just behind. Better late than never, right?) Imagine that. In addition to my own mental and emotional health benefits, I have learned some life lessons that have also improved how I relate to and serve my clients. I knew, deep down, that there were numerous benefits to exercise. It took my own experience, applying the concepts I attempt to  pass on to my clients, to improve and impact my own life and theirs.

So…here are the lessons I have learned from this experience.

  1. Making myself accountable to something or someone keeps me focused and motivated to change. Because I was paying for training that was not cheap (but definitely worth it), I wasn’t about to waste my money, so showing up for those sessions was imperative. That was all fine and good, but it also meant, I’d better follow the trainer’s exercise program before meeting with him again, or my hard-earned dollars were wasted when I didn’t see any results. In addition, I was able to encourage my clients to apply this same concept to their sobriety by purposefully making themselves accountable to family members or sponsors, from expressing their long term goals to sharing specific daily schedules. It is uncomfortable at first, given our human nature of thinking, “I am an adult and my own boss. Why would I give someone else permission to nag me.” But. It. Works.
  2. Individual personal training and group exercise classes have related but different benefits. The individual attention I got from personal training was very important because I had no idea what I was doing, and prefer not to hurt myself. I’m too old for that! My trainer started by assessing what I could do, what my limitations were, and what I wanted to accomplish, then giving me a variety of exercises to get me to those goals. (No, I don’t want to be a body-building contestant!) He worked from where I was, helping me gain strength. When my sessions recently ended, I felt strong enough to again try the group classes offered. However, the first time in the class was a little overwhelming, comparing myself to other members who had been attending the classes for a while. It’s the same way with individual and group counseling sessions. They have different goals, but both are beneficial, and typically compliment each other. Individual sessions can dig down to deeper content because the individual can be more comfortable to share. Group sessions are about understanding that participants are not alone in their struggles, but without specific comparison. That leads to my next point.
  3. Comparing myself to others is not only futile, but detrimental to my own success, as well as selfish. It took a couple of group classes, watching the other members do more reps, lift more weight, or finish in a shorter time to make me feel like it wasn’t for me. (No member made me feel that way. They were all either doing what they came to do or encouraging me to keep trying.) After about the third class, which took extra time due to my getting VERY sore, that it dawned on me that each member is at a different place, whether because of their age, how long they had been participating, or just their body makeup. Again, this applies to the work of dealing with substance abuse or life in general. Comparing ourselves to others is not the point, because each person is at a different place in life or even in addiction to the exact same substance. If I’m going to compare, I need to compare where I am today in relation to where I was yesterday. Some days will see improvement by leaps, some will be seen as progress because we didn’t move backwards, and then some will need to be about not moving backwards again tomorrow.
  4. Exercise/physical activity is a huge stress reliever when circumstances are overwhelming, frustrating, or just busy. I can say I have finally discovered what the hype is all about regarding exercise. On days I have been: overwhelmed (when a client shared extreme emotional trauma); angry and disappointed  (when I found out my job in a program I LOVED was ending); sad (realizing more people in need would not have the same opportunity); afraid (hearing “we decided to go with someone else” after more than one interview, despite the desire to trust God); undecided (when there was an offer on the table but it didn’t feel right); or relieved (when I declined that “bird in the hand” offer and within an hour received a “two in the bush” offer from the agency I felt sure was the right place, where God wanted me);…exercise was THE BEST MEDICINE for physical, emotional, and mental health.

Even if you can’t get to the gym or don’t have the funds to spend, grab a friend (or allow one to ask you what you are going to do or what you did for the day), and start moving. A walk. A run. A skate. A swim. A basketball. Something. There will be pain. But it feels SO good when you’re done. It’s time to love yourself healthy. You won’t regret it and your family will love you for taking care of yourself. Physically, emotionally, and mentally.

When the Good Memories Outweigh the Grief: Tools of the Trade

more-toolsSix years ago, I wrote this letter, wiping the tears away after each line. Missing my dad and his goofy jokes, his heart for people, his beautiful tenor voice.

“Dear Dad,                                                                      1/7/11

Today would have been your 82nd birthday. It’s hard to believe you’ve been gone almost 10 years. Just thought I’d jot down the memories that have been playing through my mind today. From stories of your childhood, pranks you pulled in high school, lame and over-used jokes, to your tender heart for those experiencing troubles, you touched many with humor and love.

I experienced so many things because you felt strongly about showing Chris and me the world.  Many times we vacationed in places where significant time walking caused your legs to shake in pain all night, preventing sleep. Never did that hinder you from taking us to visit more beautiful and exciting places the next time, even enduring the long lines to the wild rides at King’s Island.

Your love of music has not been lost on me. I remember hearing you yell from the other room for me to stop singing and go to sleep. I was only four or five, but quoted the words from Redeemed, “I sing for I cannot be silent.” You tried to hold back a smile, but I knew you were proud that your love of music was in my heart. When I played in a recital or sang in church, no matter how many mistakes I made, you thought I was perfect. I’m not sure I can ever listen to someone else tune a piano without missing you.

I remember riding along in the big trucks with you to pick up gravel, lumber, hay from Ohio, or Sunday evenings on the bus transporting college students who were anxious about the narrow bridge across the river. “Just close your eyes like I do,” was your reassuring retort that brought laughs from some and nervous looks from others. Were you surprised when I got my CDL and drove a school bus?

When I made mistakes or bad choices, I knew you were disappointed, but you never stopped loving me. So many times you could have said you tried to warn me, but you didn’t. You weren’t perfect, and you never claimed to be, but your example showed me that nothing can separate me from God’s love.

Losing Chris changed you, as it did all of us, but in that most painful time of your life, when anger towards God might have been justified, you leaned on Him even more. Singing in The Messiah was something I looked forward to as a child, but the reality of it was even better. Watching tears stream down your face while you directed ‘Surely He has born our grief and carried our sorrow’ was evidence of your faith. Anyone who had any feelings couldn’t sing half-heartedly, knowing that you knew firsthand what grief and sorrow felt like. You always said you wanted to direct a choir of angels singing The Hallelujah Chorus when you got to heaven. I like to imagine you’re doing just that.

These are the things you taught me: Love God with every ounce of energy. Laugh. Sing. Love family. Laugh. Sing. Love people. Laugh. Sing. Serve others. Laugh. Sing. Be honest. Laugh. Sing. Work hard. Laugh. Sing. Enjoy coffee.

When I shared with your one-and-only granddaughter your story of fighting God’s call to preach because you wanted to be famous as a pianist, she said, “But Mom, Grandpa was famous.” She knows that you have touched, moved, and inspired students who are ministering for God around the world.

You live on in my heart!

Cheers! (With a cup of coffee, of course!)”

There is so much more to what he taught me, especially the coffee part, and one of those lessons smacked me in the face today. While it is unusual to have damp weather here in the desert, we have recently had plenty of rain. Consequently, my front door swelled a bit and was sticking, making it difficult to open, particularly for my mother. I finally remembered a DIY fix for the situation I learned from my dad, and stopped by my local hardware to look for some graphite powder. While I was browsing the store, I realized that my dad’s piano tuning tool kit (that I barely saved from being passed outside the family after dad passed) probably still had some, so I headed home.

Opening that case brought back a flood of memories like a forty-foot swell on a stormy ocean. It traveled to Papua New Guinea three times for dad to repair pianos for missionaries, completely funded by gifts from people who loved him. (One of those times, I got to go along and help him re-string the bass section of a piano and sing along with him in services.) It moved to Arizona with him when he left his beloved Kentucky mountains to retire and live near his one-and-only granddaughter. It probably recognized many of the curvy mountain roads, and I recognized the many familiar tools and the many spare parts he had saved because he would need them sometime. (I came by my hoarding issue naturally.)

As you can see in the photo above, the tuning fork is worn from more than 50 years of use. The mutes and felt strips, the tuning hammer have not been touched in years. The tool he designed and had made to more easily insert the cork straps, the clamp to reapply ivory on keys, the worn out sandpaper paddle are all idle. And there was the small black and blue oil applicator with graphite powder.

I smiled and remembered all the times I dutifully watched and learned as he worked his craft with pride in a job well done. And I felt grateful, and loved, and proud. More than the grief.

Holiday Expectations: Fantasy vs Reality

This post was published more than a year ago, but it still rings true, and with added challenges – another face is gone from the attached photo and my job situation is more than likely coming to an end. But I’m trying to hang on to the hope of the season

journalmehealthy: is what i see in the mirror real?

IMG_0930When I think about the various holidays of my childhood, I realize my experiences clearly formed my expectations about how those celebrations should occur in adulthood. Holiday celebrations were always about family. I was the youngest on both sides of the family, so I grew into already-established traditions. Feelings could be described as “warm and fuzzy,” with plenty of humorous conversations, cozy hugs from grandparents, uncles pressing me for “favorite” position over each other, and fondly looking up to all my older cousins. Oh, and food, of course. Lots of scrumptious, down-home food. I always imagined a house full of family, laughter, and hugs as an adult. Having adulthood turn out significantly different makes for a generous range of emotions when the holidays show up on the calendar. Managing those feelings is challenging, at best.

Starting in mid November through January 1st, most of us have at least some level of expectations…

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Crazy Days That End Well (I have people.)

paperpeople-011I don’t really do Halloween. I used to love being someone else for a few hours, and maybe I will again someday. Right now, life and its curveballs are a little too overwhelming to do anything other than smile and acknowledge the cute (or not) costumes and re-imaginations of others and hand over the candy. Without eating ANY of it!

Today, though! Crazy start. I thought it would be the typical Monday. I’m running a little late, so I’ll order my coffee on an app on my phone to save time.

Nope! ERROR message. Fortunately, the drive through line isn’t too long at 0600, but even that took longer. Okay! Have coffee. Will travel.

Nope! Red and blue lights ahead, and no one knows how to merge and keep things moving. Finally on The Grand Avenue, that everyone loves to hate, due to its 6-way intersections, and things are moving along and turning onto the street that is the most direct toward work.

Nope! Street is closed due to an accident, and routed onto a freeway with a few hundred other people trying to use a detour. Thirty extra minutes (and gallons of gas) of backtracking to make it to work. Time to focus and get things done.

Nope! Distractions related to not knowing the future. Not knowing what direction to go. Feelings of panic regarding decisions that need to be made, deadlines that need to be met, questions that need to be answered with graciousness that seem to need a magician to pull off.

But then …

A client calls to say, “I’m doing well. I have a good job. I’ve seen my kids. I’ve created accountability with my supervisor. And I want to thank you for everything you did for me.”

A daughter who loves to give gifts and make people feel special reminds you that you are loved.

A friend from across the country, takes your call and gives you nearly 2 hours of her late evening to listen. To help you reframe your situation. To understand you when you aren’t sure you understand yourself. To point to the trees that would be obvious if you weren’t so close to the forest. To send you encouragement. To pray. To help lift your load and remind you that you are loved.

I cannot do this life alone. And I don’t have to. I HAVE PEOPLE.