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.

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.

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.

These are a few of my favorite things …

Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote here about accepting the discrepancy between my reality and my expectations of end-of-the-year holidays. As it turned out, Thanksgiving and Christmas this year were nothing spectacular. However, there were some events and realizations that moved and inspired me, helping me value what is. Here are a few of my favorite things over the last couple of weeks:

1. A giving daughter. I believe it is in my child’s nature to give. But I also know that I nurtured those characteristics in her from the beginning. I love watching her get excited about the gifts she has carefully and thoughtfully chosen for friends and family members, knowing what each will love. And she glows with delight when they do.

2. A grateful daughter.  No matter the monetary value of a gift, new or repurposed, she receives, she is grateful for the thought, time, and effort put in to presenting it to her. I never need to ask or remind her to offer a word of thanks. I know it’s already done.

The Nutcracker

3. Enjoying the ballet with my daughter. My favorite gift, from said daughter, was attending The Nutcracker. I was raised in a music family by a musician father who made sure that I learned to appreciate classical music, so I’ve heard the musical score all my life. Sitting next to my daughter, engaged in the elegant strains from the symphony, watching the talent of ballet dancers, and feeling my toes automatically tapping to the rhythm inside my shoes filled me with joy and peace, and made me feel like my father was right beside me.

4. The lights of a Christmas tree softly illuminating a dark room. There is just something relaxing about sitting and allowing the warm light to calm the busyness of the season.

5. Encouraging words of colleagues and friends. When doubts try to hinder the progress of doing something I feel passionate about, hearing that someone relates to my challenges fuels continued motivation to pursue a dream.

6. Word that clients are doing well. I don’t take any credit for the hard work they put in to make changes in their lives, but hearing of their success is equal to a Christmas bonus. I appreciate the opportunity to have been a small piece of their puzzle picture.

7. Good health. I don’t feel fabulous every single minute of the day, but I can’t take good health for granted. Having sick time available to use if I need it and paid vacation days for “preventative” health . . . that is a huge blessing.

8. Granddogs who are always excited to see me. No matter if I’ve been gone five days or five minutes, Maxine and Russell have butt and tail wags, respectively, and slobbery kisses to welcome me home.

I’m sure if I spent a few more hours, I could name many more things that fill my life with joy. I’ll stop here for now, because sleep is a favorite thing, as well. How many favorite things can you name to remind yourself that your dreams and passions are worthy of every effort you can give them?

The Beauty of Age

GraceNotes Then

GraceNotes Then

Recently, a group of people with whom I used to sing reunited for a memorial service for one of our beloved members. (Hence the arrow pointed at the missing member, upper left.) GraceNotes has been a source of joy for me, and it was great to see each one of them, despite the great sadness we all felt at the loss of a man God used to bring outsiders into His fold. We reminisced about some hilarious times together through the years, as well as the uniqueness of the entire group. The years have crept in and we are scattered here and there. But coming together to join our voices brought back so many raw emotions that it was beautiful and overwhelming to experience. Some members I see on a regular basis; others just occasionally. For still others, it had been years since I had a chance to catch up on what their lives are about these days. Still more members communicated with us from afar.

Two things have been on my mind since, and I’ve been chastising myself for not getting them written down sooner. The first was the ease at which we gathered, hugged, and talked together, like it was just yesterday since we had sung together. There is something about the bond that happens when we share our lives with others in such a tightknit group, particularly as we lifted our voices in harmony together. I was reminded of how much I had wanted to be a part of a small choir while in college many years ago. I was incredibly disappointed that I was not chosen, especially due to the reason. How joyful it was to be asked into GraceNotes years later, and have the pleasure of continuing my favorite pastime of singing with such a talented and spiritual group of people. Being a part of this “family” helped me through some very dark times, and I will always be grateful for the privilege.

The second thing I noticed was the beauty I saw in each of these group members. I never viewed them as any less, but there was something about the beauty of age. Maybe it is the softening of age – not in a weak sense, but in the maturity, a strength, if you will, that calls for less judging of self and more loving of others. Maybe it is the trials that each has been through and not only survived, but thrived in the face of pain or stress or loss. Maybe it is just the beauty of Jesus shining through because we’ve discovered it is ALL about Him. Maybe it was just me – seeing each one in a different light – seeing a beauty that is beyond the surface, that shines through in love, in acceptance, in true empathy. We’ve always heard that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I can tell you. I beheld beauty in each one. A beauty that surpasses any pageant or performance. Beauty that, in the face of sorrow, appreciates the loss because it says we experienced great love.

GraceNotes Now

GraceNotes Now

Reunions are not always pleasant events, much less happy ones. Joining together to say, “So long,” to a friend and loved one is especially difficult. When you’re able to see the beauty of family and friendship, your heart swells up and leaks from your eyes. There is grief for what is no more. There is joy for what was. And there is hope for what will be someday – our all-inclusive reunion with Jesus and all the other beautiful people who have touched and inspired me. I want to make sure they know how beautiful they are to me, and how grateful I am to be part of this family.

“Village” Moms

We’ve all heard the age old proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” (That title got you, didn’t it. You thought I meant The Village People!) In the last week preceding Mother’s Day, my thoughts have been repeatedly thinking specifically of the women who have contributed to my life. There have been many, and I found myself feeling the need to acknowledge and share just how meaningful some of those relationships have been before writing about the one who birthed me.

The first years of my life, my family resided in an apartment building where three other families lived. Whether verbal or unspoken, those three moms were given permission to discipline on the spot or report misbehavior back to my own parents. I’m sure there were times when I balked at their apparent intrusion into my doings, but no one was about to allow me to be irresponsible. I don’t remember a thought process that led me to believe it created a safe environment at that time, but when I look back, I clearly felt safe. I knew if anything were wrong – if I got hurt, if anything scary happened – I could count on those ladies to help me. They hold a special place in my heart, remembering all the times we celebrated holidays together, or shared some fresh-baked cookies and iced tea. I can still hear their unique laughs in my head when I recall old memories. Janet, Faith, and Ruby were good “village” moms.

When my family moved to a new home, many more moms were added to my “village” on a regular basis, whether they had their own children or not. My K-3rd teacher suctioned her hand to my bloody forehead and lead me to the school nurse when I fell and hit the concrete step. She also spanked me when I defied her authority or set me in the corner until I apologized to another student. She comforted me when I reached the school building crying because the below-freezing air burned my lungs while crossing the swinging bridge and walking up the hill to school. Patsy was a good “village” mom.

My 4th-7th grade teachers also needed to discipline me on occasion. I was expected to do my homework, to be respectful in class and on the playground, and to talk only at the appropriate times (which seemed to be PRETTY difficult for me). I remember having a level of fear of them, but it was a fear born of respect. When we were read to, allowed to listen to basketball games, or acknowledged for following the rules, I knew we were loved. Agnes and Mary were good “village” moms.

Several ladies had significant impact during my high school years. One noted that I might be feeling lost and out of sorts when my own parents were spending much of their time at an ICU 85 miles away, watching hopefully over my unconscious brother. She sent her daughter to ask me to stay in their home, which felt more like family. One realized her young hurting cousin needed a comforting mentor and repeatedly showed up to take a walk in the pasture. One, who already had a houseful of seven (I guess one more is not a big deal, and I was expected to contribute, which I appreciated), invited me to spend spring break in her home, far away from painful reminders of loss. I’m not sure she will ever understand just how much I needed that week of not feeling the pain of becoming an only child. One of my teachers, also a class sponsor, lent me her ear plenty of times. She expected me to “get” Great Expectations, various other literature, and exceptional grammar skills, but she also spoke words of understanding and encouragement, and still does. Another, also the mother of my from-birth-friend, challenged me to create a personal written story that simultaneously created some healing of the deep wound in my heart. Carlene, Bethany, Ruth, Martha, and Ruth were good “village” moms.

Even in my adult life, “village” women have mothered me in a time of need. When I first left home and lived far away from family, one lectured or loved me in my “greenness” of marriage. Later, when that marriage was over, even further away from family, one accepted, loved, and encouraged this single, struggling mom by graciously giving me sewing work to do and generously paying me. Another claimed me as her fourth daughter. Before my own parents moved closer, she always invited me to her holiday family gatherings, making sure I wasn’t alone. More than once, a warm handshake with her included the passing of money to pay overdue bills. Allene, Dee, and Earlene have been good “village” moms.

I also count Aunt Ruth, Aunt Beth, another Aunt Ruth, Grandma Mae, and Grandma Ava. When I add all these “village” moms to the mom who birthed me, I feel overwhelming gratitude for the contribution of the “village” in my life. My mother took that proverb to heart, providing for me a “village” of godly women and modeling the kind of woman who effectively and constructively molds young people to be the best they can be. I only hope I can be half the mom these moms have been to me.