Editing life

Life is just a story we tell ourselves and the world. 
 
It’s based on our own perceptions and convenient omissions. Each experience should be liberally coated in sugar in its retelling.  Why not, it’s your story.  Every day, the story gets revised and edited.  Words and sentences change and sometimes entire chapters get cut.  Hopefully, at the end of the process, a beautiful body of work is left with smooth transitions, strong characters, and a logical plot with just enough twists to keep it exciting. 
 
Right now, I’m in the process of a major revision in the chapter of how I came to social work.  I started as a bleeding heart in the wrong industry- wanting to save the poor and sick and to give hope to the hopeless.  I did what I set out to do but now I’m cynical and jaded. 
 
I question most clients’ stories because, after all, we each are the author and story-teller of our life’s story.  I feel resentment towards clients who claim to be too sick to work but manage to mow the grass, clean the gutters, and host a Memorial Day cookout for their many friends and family members.  I want to scream when clients ask for help with the heat bill but won’t sacrifice cable or smoking, eating out or getting their nails done.  When I see widespread abuse of the systems meant to ease suffering and improve quality of life, I wonder if the real answer is to stop providing the answer.  Let people decide how to improve their own lives.  If they don’t want more in life, so be it, but let’s stop trying so hard to help.  Let the resources dry up that are being misused and redirect them where a difference can be made like education and research. 
 
I want my clients and clients’ families to need more out of life than to just survive on hand-outs and government programs.  I wish there was a way to instill a work ethic, honesty, dignity and pride in their hearts and brains.  More than that, I want to see the good in people again.   Scratch that, I need to see the good in people again in order to keep adding to my story to keep it beautiful and living, rather than covered in the soot from a slowly burning society.
 
That’s just the story of my life today. 
 
By tomorrow, I’m sure the same story will have been revised and rewritten with a fresh voice and new hope inspired by a good night’s rest and the promise of weekend libations.
 
photo: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/objects?exhibitionId=%7b36D81705-241D-4934-AB02-FD7C8DBBB3E5%7d&pg=2&rpp=20
A Pair of Hungry Pike, Unknown (Canadian), Date: 1911, Accession Number: 2007.460.2

Keeping Cool in the Ghetto

When social work doesn’t work…

It starts when an old woman’s daughter calls to beg for an A/C unit for her mother. 

“Please, it is so hot in her house.” 

I heard her break to take a drag on her cigarette.  

“We just don’t have the extra money for anything like that,” she continued.

Their very understanding social worker, nodded on the other end of the phone, “Yes, that is a problem.” 

I filled with a sense of false self-importance and knew the exactly what to do.  I quickly completed an application for the program without the need to exaggerate the situation.  The truth of this woman’s life was desperate enough to garner the sympathy and thereby assistance requested. 

Surprisingly soon after the app was submitted, the woman was approved for cool air.  As a privilege and a right to decent living conditions as a human, or out of pity for her poverty and poor health doesn’t really matter, right?

In any case, I mustered the strength to get the A/C into my car, with the help of a co-worker, and headed off into the heart of darkness to make my special delivery. 

When I pulled up in front of the shanty house, it occurred to me that they might not have the electrical wiring to support the efficient energy burning machine in my backseat.  It appeared that they didn’t have window screens, collars for their dogs or a mower to cut the grass.  I guessed that a good socket might be a stretch.  Nonetheless, I continued with my mission as I had an old lady to save.

Three women sat heavily on a sagging wooden porch.  They stared dumbly ahead until I hopped out of my car.  Then their looks turned to that of suspicion even though I called to confirm the delivery just 24 hours earlier.   

“Hey there, ladies. I’ve brought you something to cool off.  I just need a little help getting it inside.”

The woman I was there to save continued to stare ahead, uninterested in my business of her rescue.  Her silver braids shone in the sun as she looked over the cracked and empty parking lot across the street.  Weeds and broken bottles were more interesting than the possibility of a room cooled to 72 degrees.

A massive woman sat next to her and yelled out, “Well, what you waiting for? Bring it in already.”

She looked like she was about to drown in the sweat as it pooled in the roll around her neck.  Her face and arms were slick with sweat, yet she sat amazingly motionless.  She was a mound of melting human, forgettable as she was unhelpful. 

 “Listen, I need some help. Can someone come down here and give me a hand?”  I directed the question to the only capable body, the third woman who sat on an upturned paint bucket.  

She picked up the hint and was the only one to respond.

“Why you axin’?  Is it heavy or somethin’?”

No, I just want you to experience the good feelings generated from team work, I thought.

“Yes it’s heavy, and I can’t lift it alone.”

 Begrudgingly, the youngest woman shuffled down to help.  We managed to get the A/C inside once we cautiously stepped over the old woman’s swollen feet.  She couldn’t see the need to move her feet for our safe passage.  After all, she was there first. 

The woman led me inside towards the nearest open window and dropped her end of the box. 

“There, you can set it up here,” she declared and turned to go back outside.

So I showed myself to the door after her and left. 

Nothing was said when I left.  The massive woman looked disappointed that I didn’t set up the unit and the youngest woman was dismayed that she may be tasked with the difficult chore of reading directions and setting the A/C up herself.  Meanwhile, the woman with the silver braids stared straight ahead, indifferent to world around her.  She didn’t mind the heat and never asked for the A/C.   Why should she be grateful for something that she never wanted? 

I’d like to make the excuse for her that she was tired of accepting charity and even more tired of living in poverty.   Her soul was worn and weary from never having enough or any way to get it aside from the kindness of strangers.  

My only regret is that I didn’t drag the A/C back out of that disgusting house that smelled of wet dog and flea killing powder, around the old woman’s legs, over the broken boards of the porch and back to my car for someone who does want it and would appreciate it. 

What is gratitude in the face of charity?  What is anything in the face of charity, other than a sad state of affairs, to everyone but the giver?  In spite of this, I’m still secretly holding out for a little thank you card in the mail.  Its a silly and selfish wish, but what can I say, I’m just a little human?   

 

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” 
― Hélder CâmaraDom Helder Camara: Essential Writings

“While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.” 
― Chinua AchebeAnthills of the Savannah

 

 

Bloody Mary’s in the morning

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The couple sat next to each other on rough wooden stools in a bar.  It was a mostly covered bar, except where the sheets of plastic and tin didn’t come together.  Fresh air, sun, birds, and rain came through the same cracks and openings without discretion.

It was a bright, hot morning.  Silvery puddles remained on the streets and sidewalks from the last night’s heavy rain.  The air felt warm and heavy, a welcome change from the cold and frigid air of the Midwest.

“That was some kind of rain we had last yesterday,” the man said to the woman, as he watched a weather forecast on the tv mounted to the wall.

“Looks like Indiana is about to get hit with a blizzard. Whew, glad we’re out of there.”

Already, they began to identify themselves as a part of the island, thinking they were like locals instead of as conspicuous tourists.  Drinking first thing in the day seemed like the right thing to do in their efforts to acculturate.

“Mmm…hmm…” she agreed without words.

She swirled a straw in a glass of something pink, preoccupied, and took off her large sun hat. With one hand, she smoothed her dark hair back into place.  A cringe took over her pretty mouth when she remembered picking her way through the flooded streets and the murky water swirling around her ankles.

My feet were wet at least four hours, she calculated.  An itch started in the arch of her foot and she cringed again.  Oh god, she thought, what if its trench foot or swamp rot or whatever it is that happens when feet get wet for too long?

As she worried, the bar filled with people for brunch. They jostled and bumped into one another as they ordered rounds of mimosas and Bloody Mary’s.  It was an entire town filled with people on vacation and people who make money from those on vacation.  The unspoken agreement allowed this symbiotic relationship to continue as long as everyone was well-plied with alcohol: morning, noon, and night.

The man broke the woman’s ruminations, “Do you want another Greyhound?”

“No, I think I’ll try a Blood Mary.  I want one of those spicy green beans they use down here.”

He laughed and his blue-grey eyes sparkled, “You could just ask for a green bean, I bet the bartender would give you one.”

They both looked at the bartender, waiting impatiently on another couple.  She wore mystical rings on each of her fingers and her skin was like tanned leather.

The bartender must have sensed them talking about her.  She quickly turned her head with as much sass as one gal could muster for a Monday morning, and gave them a look that said, whatever it is you want, it can wait.

When she turned back to the second couple, her hand was balled up into a fist on her hip.

She explained, “Like I said, there is only one option of champagne for the mimosas.”

The woman from the first pair noticed the couple’s bright gold rings and fresh faces, and whispered to her partner, “Yuppy newlyweds,” with a giggle.

She forgot her foot-related worries as the warmth of the vodka spread across her chest and belly.  Life’s much easier to face when one’s day is started with a good drink, she thought.

“Ok,” the bartender sashayed over. “What can I get for you, two?” she asked with a straight face and a thinly veiled disdain for her patrons.

At least she not’s fake about it, the man thought, noticing her serious demeanor.  I’d much rather know that she dislikes us than have her smile at our faces and spit into our drinks. I suppose she still might spit into our drinks, but at least we’ll see it coming.

“Two Bloody Mary’s, please,” the man requested.

Rather than speaking, the bartender nodded and set off to mixing and measuring out the drinks.

Fat drops of rain started to fall through the cracks.  The rain plinked and plunked when it hit the roof of plastic and tin.  It began to drip onto the man’s head, sliding down his blonde hair onto his chest and shoulders.

His partner began to laugh, and said, “Uh oh, you better come over this way, out of the rain.”

She tugged at his stool to bring him out from under one of the cracks and closer to her.

“Where did that come from?” he asked, peering up through the hole in the roof to the sky, now grey and cloudy.

“It will blow over,” the bartender chortled, seeing the man’s wet head, and set down two tall glasses of Bloody Mary.

“Cheers,” the woman said, picking up her glass.  The man picked up his glass and met hers in the air with a chink.

The woman smiled when she sipped her drink, and two spicy green beans bobbed up in the sea of red tomato juice.

“Thank you,” the woman said, catching the bartender’s attention. The bartender looked up with tired eyes and gave a half smile in acknowledgement.

“We might be here awhile,” the man stated, looking back up to the dark sky while his partner thoughtfully crunched on a spicy green bean.

That’s a Wrap

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An exhausted looking woman shuffled her feet into the post office.

Everything about the woman was tired; an oversized winter coat hung limply from her frame, her hair was dull and lifeless, and deep bags drooped from her eyes.

Yawning, she pushed a small package across the counter to the clerk.

“Regular delivery, please.”

“Sure thing, Mrs. Williams,” the clerk responded.

Taking the package from her, the clerk asked, “Are you ok today, Mrs. Williams?  You don’t look too good.”

He turned from his patron to the computer in front of him, and weighed the small package.  The scale beeped, he typed something into the computer, and printed out a ticket.

The woman’s eyes dropped shut and her chin dropped to her chest, as she leaned against the counter.

The clerk pursed his lips in concern when he glanced at the woman.

Clearing his throat, the clerk said, “Ahem, Mrs. Anderson,” as he pasted the white sticker onto the package.

Her head jerked up, “Oh, sorry about that.  I haven’t been sleeping very well lately.  I’m dealing with a spider infestation.”

She leaned over the counter and whispered, “They web me in at night.  I’ve had 4 exterminators come and no one can take care of the problem.  Where ever I sleep at night, they find me and wrap me up so tight I can’t move.”

Shuddering, she confided quietly in the clerk, “I can feel their cobwebs now.”

The clerk’s eyes grew round in disbelief and confusion.

“Now, what do I owe you, young man?” the woman asked as she slowly blinked and opened her purse.

Haste makes waste

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A grey and dinged up car circled the apartment complex.  It was in an area where cars were driven by people who knew enough to leave.  It was in a place where cars only circled the area when something was about to go down.

However, the grey car continued to circle the complex, weaving through the poorly marked streets and lanes.  The car was driven by a young woman who was close to tears of frustration.  She had been lost for the last twenty minutes in the apartment complex, driving slowing and squinting at the numbers above each entrance.  A grungy looking maintenance man whizzed up on a golf cart after her sixth pass through the complex.  He slowed next to the woman’s car and suspiciously peered into her window to see her intently following the directions of the GPS on her phone at less than five miles per hour.  Sensing his stare, she turned to look at him and waved with a smile.

Noting a name tag and a clip board on the woman’s passenger seat, he grumbled into a walkie-talkie, “Its fine, just another damned case worker,” and buzzed off back to the heated maintenance garage where he could smoke cigarettes and watch a small portable television in peace.

“Aha!” she shouted.

“This has to be it!” the woman declared comparing the numbers over the red door with the address on her GPS.

Glancing at the digital numbers on her dashboard before shutting the car off, she said, “Shit, late again!”

Silently, she prepared herself for the visit and said, “Ok girl, get it together.”

It was at about that time that the thought crossed her mind to review the last case note from the previous case worker. Nah, no time, she decided as she grabbed her clip board and marched into the entrance of the building.

“Come on in,” a voice yelled from inside when the young woman knocked on the door.

Without hesitation, she let herself in, eager to see what was on the other side.

“Hello, Mrs. B.  How are you?” the young woman began in with the questions immediately, filling the room with her nervous chatter.

She continued, “Tell me about this wheel chair.  How long have you been in this?  Seems like something new.”

Mrs. B sat in a wheelchair with a rough pink blanket over her lap and a bright green head wrap.  A flash of confusion crossed her face and was quickly replaced with a wide smile.   A second woman in the room began to laugh, her big chest and stomach bouncing up and down as the two fed off of each other, whooping and cackling.

“She don’t know,” the second woman managed to wheeze out between chortles.

Trying to control her laughter, Mrs. B turned towards the young woman with a straight face.

“Girl, I done been in this wheelchair for a long time now.  Maybe you didn’t notice but I don’t have no legs,” she explained.

The young woman’s eyes bugged out in disbelief at her obvious mistake.  She stared at the space in the blanket that should have been filled out by big, black legs, but where instead, the blanket was flat.

Searching for the sky

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Speaking hesitantly and unsure, the young woman sat on the edge of the hospital bed and began to nervously twirl her hair.  She wore a name tag and sensible flat shoes, trying to look the part of a social worker.  However, her smooth face and lack of confidence exposed the truth; she was still a little girl playing dress up.

There was urgency in her voice, an insistent impatience that came through as a whine when she spoke to the occupant of the bed.

An older, slender woman with a braid of thick, silver hair lay motionless on the bed, unresponsive to the visitor perched next to her.  Her face was of the classical kind of beauty that had enhanced with time and from a life of happiness.  The deep laugh lines around her mouth and eyes told of years spent far from the sterile confines of a hospital room. 

Deep blue drops of some gemstone hung from her small earlobes and exquisite rings of diamonds and gold adorned the fingers of both hands.  Her thin brown arms were folded across her chest, with a paper-thin sheet pulled up over the rest of her body.  She pursed her lips and turned her head towards the window.    

“Can you tell me your name?” the young woman pleaded. “It’s important so we can tell your family where you are.  Don’t you think someone is looking for you?”

The young woman had been sent in with a job to do, her first assignment, in fact, and she was failing.  She thought back to her job search in silent frustration and the other options that she might pursue, like fashion design or accounting.  This really isn’t for me, she thought.   

The older woman said nothing and continued to stare out the window, her deep brown eyes searching for the sky.  

Bugs and drugs

“What in the heck is bug gear? “ a young woman spouted off after she slammed the phone down into its cradle.

The woman was rather sick of hearing about infestations.  It seemed that roaches, bed bugs, and mice were taking over the city, starting with the poorest and most vulnerable households.  Where ever there was a hole or a crack, the pests crept inside and kept coming.

Regardless of the attempts to trap and spray, the pests were there to stay, like it or not.

Another woman in a connected cubicle heard her co-worker’s frustration through the thin, partial wall.  She flatly replied, “Sounds like fun over there.”

“Apparently, this house has a roach infestation.  The nurse wouldn’t tell me what else is going on because she didn’t want to speculate, except that it’s safe enough and I should wear my bug gear,” the first woman explained.

“Is that it?” the second woman questioned, and rolled her chair closer to her co-worker with raised eyebrows and a grin.

“Oh, and that she thinks it’s a drug house for the neighborhood dealers who may or may not be the client’s grandkids,” the first woman responded.

The woman’s co-worker laughed.  Before rolling back into her cube, she said with a sense of finality, “Bugs, drugs, and you can bring the hugs.”

She’s got those nails

The little woman slipped through the double doors into the restroom.  She passed an older black woman, who was on her hands and knees, scrubbing the grout between the floor tiles.

“How you doing today, sugar?” she asked, as she cheerfully scrubbed.

Meanwhile, the little woman sat on the commode with her bony elbows on her knees and her head in her hands.  Verging on tears, thoughts of the flashing red light on her telephone that another voicemail had come in and the stack of growing paper on her desk swirled through her mind.  It’s too much she thought and tried to calm her racing heart.  Taking just one thing at a time would be an easy if she were a dentist pulling teeth; but instead, she was in a field that required a professional level of constant multitasking.  A woman had been calling all week asking for updates on something that would take weeks to get into place.  In each call, the woman’s voice grew angrier and more desperate.  These calls continued and broke the little woman’s reserve down further and further, until she had to escape to the safety of a bathroom stall.

“You sure you’re ok in there?” the woman cleaning asked after she heard a deep sigh from the little woman’s stall.  “You sound like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders with the way you’re carrying on.”

“Oh, sorry,” the little woman replied.  She wasn’t aware how loudly her worries were escaping from her body despite her best efforts.

Shamefacedly, the little woman emerged from the stall and turned on the faucet to wash her hands. A stranger had heard her sigh and knew more about her current struggle than she knew about herself.  She did feel as though the world was on her frail shoulders, and it was heavy.

“Sugar,” the older woman said and stood up with a groan.  She leaned against the paper towel dispenser and continued, “Just remember why you are working.  Is it for the paycheck or is it to help people?”

The little woman sighed again, this time aware but unable to stop the sound from leaving.  “You’re right,” she conceded.

“Mmm…hmm,” the cleaning lady agreed and looked over the rim of her glasses at the little woman.  “Course I am.”

She held up her index finger to make a point, “You keep in mind that it’s just a job.  It doesn’t define who or what you are in life.  It’s just a part of it.”

Gesturing with her hands as she delivered her bathroom sermon/ therapy session, the little woman grimaced when she noticed the long fingernails that curled two inches or more over the tips of the older woman’s fingers.  They were 100% natural and a light brown, likely from cleaning materials and god-knows-what else.  How she was able to do anything with her hands was a feat and a mystery.  The claw-like nails created a self-imposed type of a disability which seemed a shame when many people with unavoidable disabilities would prefer to live otherwise.

“Thanks,” the little woman said backing out of the bathroom, still staring at her nails in disbelief.  “Really, I mean it, thanks for talking to me.  Sorry to rush out, but I’ve got a call I’ve got to make.”

The little woman held her head higher and felt ready to face the rest of her day as she pushed the doors open to the hallway.  The cleaning lady had put things into perspective for her without knowing anything else about her situation.  Yet, she had known just what the little woman needed to hear to continue.  The little woman mused over these things when she brushed past a co-worker on her way back to her desk.  The co-worker said over her shoulder, “Hey, you’re looking brighter than earlier today.  Good for you.”

The little woman replied, “I just got a pep talk from the cleaning lady in the bathroom.”

Chortling, the co-worker knew exactly whom the little woman referred to, perhaps having had her own pep talk on another day. She asked what they both had wondered about the woman who had done so much and so little at the same time, as the bathrooms were never very clean. “What about those nails?”