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Through the Lenses We Choose

jglasses2On Friday afternoon, my 16-year old daughter and her friend giggled as they insisted I look at a picture from earlier that day.

In the photo, my daughter, who wears her glasses more than she wears her contacts, had placed several of her friends’ glasses over her own.

She was laughing with delight at the image of all those glasses perched on her nose. But just looking at the picture made my head hurt because trying to see the world through multiple lenses can be painful.

It’s so painful, in fact, that many of us avoid doing it.

But we should.

I was reminded of that this week when I begrudgingly attended a continuing education program that I needed to keep my social work license. The licensure requirements recently changed to include at least two hours about mental health issues for veterans, which was the topic of the workshop.

As soon as I entered the classroom, I realized that not all of us were there solely because we wanted to keep our licenses.

When I sat down, the older gentleman sitting directly across from me explained that, even though he wasn’t a social worker, he was interested in the topic.

He was a veteran he said as he gestured to a woman sitting near us who was wearing a hijab.

“I was taught to kill people like that,” he said to me. “Now I’m being told to accept them.”

I’m not even sure what hackles are, but I immediately felt mine go up.  His words were in direct opposition to everything I’ve been raised to believe:

  • America was founded on the principle of religious freedom.
  • Christians aren’t supposed to judge people who are different than we are.
  • Good people don’t want to harm others based on their beliefs.

With only a few words, this man who had spent most of his life in service to my country, made me question both his ethics and the agenda of our country’s military.

Only hours later, after listening to a presentation about military culture, hearing from family members of veterans, and getting bombarded with statistics, did I realize the man was crying.

A colleague was trying to comfort him as tears rolled down his cheeks. He was explaining how difficult adjusting to civilian life has been for him.

That’s when I realized the entire purpose of the continuing education requirement:  I needed to understand that lens through which Veterans like him might view the world. He isn’t a bad man. He’s actually a good man who is living in a culture with conflicting message and ideals.

That was only one of the many reminders about different lenses that I’ve been getting recently.

For example, I had to change the lens through which I saw a childhood friend whom I’d envied for having everything I didn’t: a sense of style; easy popularity; a beautiful bedroom; horses and even a boat. She recently revealed that her stepfather had molested her for years in the house where I’d spent so many hours. In fact, she had envied me for my ability to express exactly what I was thinking and feeling while she kept everything bottled up.

I’ve had to change the lens through which I view some of the frustrating low-income clients who walk into our office after continually make poor choices. New medical findings show how poverty and childhood stress literally change brain structure.

I’ve had to change the lens through which I perceive people who allude to Fox News or share clips of Sarah Huckabee Sanders citing a recycled email. I have to remind myself to try to see the world through their tinted lens colored by dogma, lack of information, priorities, fear and their beliefs about their own circumstances.

Unlike my daughter, I’m not going to subject myself to a headache by putting on several pairs of real glasses that will make the world blurry. But I am going to try a little harder to look through the lenses that other people choose to share with me.

And in return, I hope they take time to look through mine as well.

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Just One Shoe

I noticed the shoe just after dawn. It was lying on the gravel in a weedy, deserted parking area.

It certainly wasn’t the only single, abandoned shoe I’ve ever noticed. Over the decades, I’ve seen more lonely shoes in random places than I can possibly remember.

But this shoe caught my attention because it triggered a memory about something that happened in almost that exact same location last summer.

In both cases, I was peddling my bike down a straight stretch of road after conquering a particularly long and steep hill.

But that time, I wasn’t alone on the road. Instead, three bedraggled teenagers with two suitcases and an extremely, unenthusiastic dog were trudging along the shoulder. As I rode by, the boy yelled at me to stop.

My curiosity outweighed any concerns I should have had, so I obeyed.

“Hey, is this the way to Oregon?” the boy asked. In one hand, he was holding a rope that was tied loosely around his poor dog’s neck. One of the suitcases sat at his feet.

“Where?” I asked. We were currently standing on a rural road in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. People with no motor vehicle generally don’t ask directions to a state that is 2,500 miles away.

“Oregon,” he repeated.

“The state?” I asked.

One of the girls gave me a look I knew well. It’s the one every teenager gives a clueless adult.

“Yes,” she said. “We are going to the state of Oregon.”

When I asked why, I was rewarded with the same look again. “Because we want to,” she replied.

“Oh,” I said. “Well, that’s a really long way to walk.”

“We’ve already come all the way from Hagerstown,” the boy announced proudly. “Are we going in the right direction?”

Since Hagerstown was only 20 miles away, his efforts to impress me weren’t very successful. At the same time, they were heading northwest. So that’s what I told them.

They seemed satisfied with my answer, thanked me, and continued their walk down the road. On my return about 20 minutes later, they were still trudging along. I waved, and they waved back.

Shortly after I passed them, I noticed one of their suitcases on the side of the road. My first thought was that it must have gotten quite heavy. My second thought was relief that at least they hadn’t abandoned the dog. And my third thought was to wonder how much more they would abandon before they simply abandoned hope of getting to Oregon.

Or maybe, against all odds, they actually did get there.

I’ll never know.

For a few a days after our encounter, I paid attention to the news in case there were any reports of three missing or runaway teens. There weren’t any.

And so, I forgot about them. At least, I forgot about them until the sight of that shoe last Monday morning reminded me of the discarded suitcase, those kids, and of impossible dreams.

For years, I’ve considered single, lost shoes – or other personal items – on the side of the road as a mystery. I’ve never understood how a person could just lose one shoe or why they wouldn’t go back to get it.

Maybe what I’ve been missing is that, to the owners, the shoe wasn’t important. It was an item that could be replaced. For them, going back for one thing wasn’t nearly as important as moving forward down the road of life – wherever it may go and toward whatever dreams they were following.

Personally, I’ve spent too much time looking for things I’ve lost only to lose sight of where I wanted to go.

But this past week, the sight of just one shoe served as a reminder that getting where we want to go sometimes requires letting go of what we already have.

In the Bushes

Amid the multitude of facts, opinions and news stories whirling around Donald Trump’s latest bizarre, unprecedented and seemingly self-serving action (that would be the firing of FBI Director James Comey if you aren’t even sure to which of his latest actions I am referring), one piece of the story has lingered with me.

I just can’t shake the image of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hiding in the bushes to avoid a direct confrontation with reporters seeking more information.

I have no doubt my obsession is linked to a memory from my childhood and my need to uncover the truth.

My story begins when my parents purchased our house in a rural, Central Oregon town  As part of the transaction, they had gotten a history from the seller, whose family had been the original owners. According to my mom, the seller’s father had “died in the bushes.”

I was six years old at the time, and the line of ornamental bushes that spanned the front of the house ran directly under my bedroom window. For months I was obsessed with the fact that a man had died in those bushes.

I would crawl under them trying to find any sign of either a dead body or, at least, some indication that a man had spent his last moments there. Even though I got nothing, I kept searching in hopes that some clue as to the man’s fate would emerge.

Then one day, my mom found me in the bushes and asked what I was doing.

“You said the man who used to live here died in the bushes,” I told her with all of the solemness that first-grade me could muster.

She had no idea what I was talking about. Only later did I discover that she had used the term “in the bushes” as a euphemism for alcoholism.

I’m now fifty years old, and I’ve never heard anyone else use that term in that way. But that doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that the term “in the bushes” has stuck with me for 44 years because it represents my passion for always pursuing the truth.

Which is why Sean Spicer ducking into the bushes to avoid facing reporters is not only completely ironic, it is more revealing than any lie Donald Trump could ever tell.

People in the public eye want to tell their side of the story. They want to share their opinions and the opinions of those they represent. They want to show evidence of what happened in the bushes and why it happened.

Unless, of course, the bushes are just a way of hiding the truth… be it the ugly truth of an addict who succumbed to a disease or that of an unqualified businessman who bedazzled voters with his wealth, his double speak, and his complete disregard for the truth.

But here’s the thing: when six-year-old me finally got the real facts from my mom, I stopped wasting my time under bushes and decided to devote more time to climbing trees.

Because when you climb trees, your perspective is so much better than the one you get crawling under (or hiding in) a bush.

And not only can you see what is actually occurring around you, you are also putting yourself out in the open for everyone else to see.

And that is what truth is all about.

 

A 50-Year Legacy

feet-out-windowI was  hanging out my office window, which is on the second floor of a rehabbed old house, when the thought struck me: “Is this really going to be my legacy? Is this the way people will remember me?”

To provide some perspective, my office sits directly across from the Catholic church, next door to the Presbyterian church, catty corner from the public library, and less than a block away from the town square. Since I have a corner office with two windows, I almost always having a view of something interesting happening

From nuns doing the Macarena on the front steps of the Catholic church, to numerous political protests, to pedestrians being hit by cars (yes – pedestrians  and cars plural – it happens more often than you might think), to the priest wearing a skirt (he swears it was a kilt), I have a great vantage point – and some pointed commentary – on all of it.

I also have an insatiable curiosity, which means when I have questions or concerns, I simply fling open my office window, lean out, and yell to whomever I think will answer.

My colleagues and the regular passerby have come to consider this normal.

But on the particular day in question, I was yelling at a stranger whom I’d never before seen. He was walking an adorable, large, white fluffy dog, and I felt compelled to meet him (the dog – not the man).  So, I opened the window and asked.

The dog looked around confused. The man looked around confused. And, realizing that neither of them knew from where the request was coming, I told them to look up. They did, and I was invited to come on down for a meet and greet.

That’s when the thought struck me. “This might be how some people will remember me – as that crazy lady who was compelled to yell at a total stranger in order to meet his dog or who shouted questions from a second story window at the church custodian across the street.”

And then another thought struck me – “Who cares? At least that is an interesting way to be remembered.”

I’ve been thinking more and more about such things recently.

That’s because today is my 50th birthday.sunset

I am now a half a century old.

Statistics show that I have more years behind me than I have in front of me. My potential to accomplish great things will become more and more limited as the next years rush by me.

In other words, dreams of becoming the next great American novelist are now fading in the same way that hopes of suddenly blossoming into a great beauty faded at age 25.

But these superficial desires have been replaced by something far much more realistic.

Fifty years of living have taught me that life isn’t about my being embraced, or even appreciated, by the rest of the world. Instead, it’s about embracing and appreciating the world I’ve been given while, at the same time, never accepting that it can’t be improved.

It means I will probably always laugh too loud and talk too much because my enthusiasm can be overwhelming. It means my innate desire to share everything I’m thinking and feeling will always require my friends, colleagues and acquaintances to tolerate listening to yet another “Trina story,”  and it will mean I will always break into song whenever a song lyric is used in conversation.

It also means I will cry too much, defend the underdog, rally against injustice and never, ever let someone else make me feel guilty about my beliefs.

And if all of that, along with penchant to make friends with every dog I encounter, yell out of office windows, and constantly stop to take a photo every time I think the sky looks amazing, then so be it.

That is my legacy,  and I consider my life well spent.

The Gift in the Dead Man’s Email

rip-laptop-2About ten years ago (before social media reconnected me with people who I never thought I’d hear from again), I received an unexpected email at work.

It was from a guy I’d known more than a decade earlier and who had faded into my memory like the vague shadows of a rear view mirror. He and I had once run in similar circles, but I’m fairly certain we never had a conversation that endured more than five-sentences. He’d certainly never occupied much, if any space, in my conscious or subconscious mind.

Which is why, when I’d received a chatty and rather lengthy email from him, I was more than just a little surprised.

He’d contacted me after reading a newspaper article in which I was quoted. He hadn’t known that I lived in the same town where his daughter and ex-wife resided, and seemed genuinely excited to re-connect.

I responded, and we exchanged a few more emails.

And then he died.

I learned about his death in the same way he’d found me – by reading about it in a newspaper article in the local paper. He had been in a head-on collision after apparently falling asleep at the wheel.

At a glance, there’s nothing particularly meaningful about this guy who was a small part of life, then wasn’t, then was again, then exited it completely.

We hadn’t been close nor do I imagine we ever would have been.

And yet, his random appearance after so many years then his abrupt disappearance after only a few days have stayed with me. Perhaps that’s partly because they serve as a reminder of how random and fragile life is. But they also suggest something more essential about how we live our lives.

We never know what the implications of our simplest interactions with others may lead. Acknowledging the presence of the quiet person in a group or sharing a smile don’t seem like  grandiose gestures in a world overwhelmed by people who scream for, and often get, attention.

But then again, maybe they are actually bigger and more relevant than any action on a stage, or screen, or political platform can ever be.

Mark’s email all those years ago was a surprise because I never thought there was much worth remembering about me in those early days of my adult life. I certainly didn’t think someone I barely knew would reach out to me more than a decade later.

Yet he did. And even though our interactions were brief, he gave me something in return: a new-found understanding of my relevance in the past, in the present, and in the future.

As the Year 2016 ends and the Year 2017 arrives, the majority of my friends and acquaintances are glad to say goodbye to a year in which so many people died and the future of our democracy began to crack. Because of that, they are fearful of what 2017 may bring.

And yet, in truth, we can’t really live if we spend our energy in a soup of regrets, resentment and concerns about the behavior and actions of others.

All we can do is follow the Golden Rule and treat others in a manner that no one can criticize. And sometimes, when we do that, our actions may stay with others long after our own memories of them have faded.

A guy I once barely knew taught me that.

Rest in peace, Mark.

And rest in peace 2016.

 

The Graduate

EPSON MFP image

Thirteen years ago,”Pomp and Circumstance” played as my son wore a red cap and gown to accept his diploma.

Because his class was extremely small, the formal ceremony was short. As the post-graduation celebration began, my son led his friends in a unique rendition of the “Chicken Dance.”

Throughout the afternoon, there were several other moments when he grabbed, or attempted to grab, the limelight. At one point, his teacher pulled me aside and whispered “All the world is a stage for Shepherd. Just enjoy it.”

But I couldn’t.

The next 13 years, starting in kindergarten, weren’t easy.

I worried obsessively about my son.

Even though my son was very smart and very funny, I worried that he didn’t have the same interests as his peers.

I worried that he was awkward and uncoordinated and would never find the place where he belonged.

I worried that he often seemed oblivious to what others automatically understood.

I even worried that he didn’t care that I was worried.

But somewhere between kindergarten and twelfth grade, my son taught me more than algebra and English literature classes ever could.

He taught me that going out on a limb will always be more interesting than standing on the ground hugging the trunk.

He taught me that winning a dance contest doesn’t necessarily require the best moves. It simply requires the most guts.

He taught me that more people appreciate the sheep who wonders off to explore new pastures than the ones who stay with the herd.

And he taught me that grabbing a mic and singing in front of the entire student body can never be embarrassing if you get everyone to sing with you.

On Monday, I will listen to “Pomp and Circumstance” while my son wears a red cap and gown  to accept his diploma.

I wish I could guarantee he won’t lead his entire graduating class  in a rendition of  “The Chicken Dance,” but I can’t. Neither can I  guarantee he won’t pull off one final, ridiculous high school stunt.

But here’s what I can guarantee: I won’t be worried.

Because I know that my unique, gifted, funny, ridiculous, smart, sarcastic son already has plenty of experience in finding his way in the often rocky terrain of life.

I also know, that his preschool teacher wasn’t entirely right. All the world is not just a stage for my Shepherd. Instead, all the world is HIS stage.

And I can’t wait to see his upcoming performances.

What Mom Never Said

Here arI deservee three truths that guide my life:

1) Perfection is highly overrated. I’ve never met a perfect person, and I certainly wasn’t raised by anyone who met the criteria.

2) We learn more far more from our mistakes than we will ever learn from accomplishments.

3) The best advice we receive isn’t handed to us wrapped in words of wisdom. Instead, the most meaningful lessons are often hidden in what we observe, what we hear, and, in many cases, what we don’t hear.

My mom has spent more than 51 years trying to impart these nuggets of truth on my brother and me.

When I was young, she sometimes interspersed her acquired wisdom into our conversations, but what went unsaid was always more powerful.

For example, my mom never once told me I deserved anything. NEVER.

I was well into adulthood before I realized that.

No matter what I achieved, she never used the word deserve. Of course she encouraged me and told me that I’d earned my successes, but she implied that earning something is entirely different from deserving it.

She never explained this, and we never discussed the matter.

But by not speaking that one word, deserve, she said volumes.

In matters of every day life, human beings don’t have the right, or the ability, to decide who is deserving of something. Because, in doing so, we imply that others are not deserving.

Life is one big poker game in which the draw sometimes determines everything. Yes, some people are better at playing the game. Yes, some people use their cards to gain an advantage. Yes, some people avoid temptations and are able to improve their chances. And yes, some people are so charming and engaging that they can cloud reality to sway the beliefs of others.

But in the end, some people are simply luckier, and luck has nothing to do with their character, their abilities, their  fortitude, their courage, or whether they are more “deserving” than others

So even though Mom never talked about why she threw “deserve” into her junk pile of words that are either misused or meaningless, she said everything through the life she’s led.

And for that, I will always be grateful.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

Touched by an Angel

rubyFor several years, National Public Radio ran a series called This I Believe that encouraged listeners to share short audio essays about core beliefs that defined who they were and how they lived their lives.

I always had a secret desire to submit my own essay, but I never did.

I just couldn’t identify only one belief that defines  me.

I believe in karma.

I believe that the worst circumstances in our life are intended to teach us critical lessons that, in the end, will make us better people.

And I believe that angels show up in our lives when we need them most.

So it was last night when I got home from work in a foul mood. I was worn down by trying to do the right thing in a world often controlled by manipulative people. I was so angry that I had an almost physical need for everyone else to know exactly how I felt. I was already writing the words for this blog in my head,

But that was before I saw the package on my front steps.

My curiosity immediately overshadowed my anger. The return address was from my long ago babysitter, Carrie, in Oregon.

Growing up, I adored Carrie just as I had adored her mother, Ruby.

My childhood was spent living thousands of miles away from my own grandparents, and Ruby had stepped up and stepped into the role of foster grandmother.

Since Ruby had several daughters of her own, I never understood how someone as special as she was could possibly think I was special too. Not only was she was kind, gentle and loving, but she had the innate ability to draw into the light all the good in people while ignoring all that was ugly. When spending time with Ruby, you couldn’t be angry at the injustices in the world because you were too busy rejoicing in all its beauty.IMG_0161

When Ruby died in January  2007 at the age of 92, I never thought I’d hear from her again.

I was wrong.

The package on my front steps contained a photo album with the letters, announcements and photographs that my mother and I had sent Ruby over two decades. It also included a note with instructions.

As I read the note from Ruby and flipped through the pages of my life since I’d left Oregon, tears streamed down my face and my anger disappeared.

I had been touched by an angel who was reminding me not to focus on the negative. There is just too much in life to celebrate instead.

And so, thanks to Ruby, that’s exactly what I did.

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Falling Out of Bed

cat falling out of bedWhen I was a little girl, I fell out of bed on a regular basis.

Sometimes, I’d pick myself up off the floor and climb back under the covers. Sometimes, my father, who must have heard the thud, would come into my bedroom, scoop me up, and tuck me back into my bed.

I don’t remember being particularly concerned or afraid of falling out of bed, nor do I remember my parents worrying about it.

It was just something I did until, one day, I didn’t do it anymore.

Like so many childhood memories, my habit of falling out of bed was locked away in a part of my brain that only opens with the right key. Sometimes that key is a piece of music, sometimes it’s a smell, and sometimes it’s a conversation. But there are times when I have no idea what key unleashed a memory. It just pops into my mind, and I can’t shake it. Those are the moments when I realize my memories have come out of hiding and dusted themselves off because they are trying to teach me something.

And so it was last week with my memories of falling out of bed.

As I thought back to those nights decades ago, I realized they represent all of life’s struggles. Those times I fell out of bed were only a fraction of all the tumbles I’ve taken. And yet, I only remember a very small percentage of them – the ones that left behind scars and a good story.

But almost every time I stumbled or even completely fell, I had the choice to wallow in the pain and humiliation or to pick myself back up. Those few times when my struggles were so great that I couldn’t just pick myself back up, I was fortunate to have someone nearby who heard the thud and immediately responded with a helping hand.

There are so many individuals with no such people nearby. On almost a daily basis, I watch the stream of people coming through my office doors for financial assistance or other social services. I realize that most of them had very few, if any, people nearby listening for their thuds. And I wonder if it’s harder to pick yourself back up when you know that no one else is paying attention to your struggles.

I also wonder if knowing that you are safe and that someone has your back makes it easier to teach yourself not to fall. When you trust that people care and realize that falls are part of the learning process, it’s easier to have the fortitude and the ability to prevent self-inflicted bruises.

My memories were reminding me that I, like everyone else, needs to pay more attention and react to the thuds when someone nearby, no matter who they are, falls.

Star Woes

In the summer of 1977, my family made the hour-long car trip to the town of Bend, Oregon see the movie Star Wars.

I was ten years old, and I had been waiting for what seemed an eternity to see the movie. In retrospect, I didn’t care so much about Star Wars as I did about fitting in.

By the time I actually got to see it, I was still stinging from the shame I’d experienced when Alice Cannon insisted we play Star Wars in the basement of my house. I knew Alice’s older brother Calvin was a big fan of science fiction, but I hadn’t expected the same from her. In the past, we had spent our time together in a totally different way – such as secretly playing her parents Carpenters albums on the record player so we could lip sync to songs like “Yesterday Once More.”

But that summer, the Carpenters were out and Star Wars was in. And, even though I had no frame of reference, when Alice wanted to play Star Wars, I agreed.

I shouldn’t have.

Despite her best efforts to engage me in playing the role of various characters, she finally gave up in disgust when I couldn’t even figure out what she meant when she said “just act like R2-D2.”

So when my parents announced we were finally going to see Star Wars, I couldn’t have been happier. Despite the long car ride, the longer ticket line and our seats in the very back of the theater, I thought my needs had finally been met.

That only lasted until the movie started.

I didn’t get the plot. I didn’t understand how I was apparently the only person in the entire world that didn’t like the movie. And, most critical of all, I still didn’t understand how I could have acted like R2-D2, who didn’t say anything but instead spoke in mechanical beeps.

What I did understand was that the Carpenters had probably been correct when they had sung “We’ve only just begun.” I knew that this Star Wars thing was going to last much longer than I wanted.

My dad confirmed my fears as the credits rolled when he said, “Well, it’s obvious they are going to make a sequel.”

Which is why, during the long, dark car ride home, I curled into a ball in the back seat and tried to reassure myself that at least I liked the theme music.  (For the record, I got the sheet music and played it over and over again on the piano that fall.)

All of this is why I found myself sighing loudly this past October when my husband asked me at least three times if I wanted a ticket to the Star Wars: The Force Awakens on opening night.

He seemed so hurt and confused when I told him that I had no idea what I would be doing on December 18 and that buying tickets that far in advance was ridiculous.

Neither he, my children or millions of others thought it ridiculous at all. To them, it was an event for which to plan accordingly. And they did.

To me, the new Star Wars is something else entirely.

It is  a reminder that. sometimes, the things we think we want the most aren’t what will make us happy. What does make us happy is discovering and pursuing our own interests and passions.

As the Carpenters would say, that’s what puts me at “The Top of the World.”