Grace So Well Becomes Us

bright sweaters

Before turning in each night, I used to spend time selecting and preparing my clothes for work the next day. The pants or skirt, shoes, shirts and jewelry didn’t need to match but they had to make sense in an attractive but calming manner. They needed a touch of verve–scarf, eye-catching necklace, pewter-metallic shoes. I could have dressed in jeans if I really wanted to. My “casual business” attired mental health agency serves everyone from white collar adults mandated to treatment for DUII to addicted younger adults who violated probation to homeless men and women trying to hang on, to change tough times into better ones. I didn’t want to dress too well or lackadaisically, as how I presented myself could be a boon or a barrier. But once I got to work, I forgot the external presentation. My work is from the inside out and my demeanor or facial expression is far more critical. So it was as much a habit to prepare my clothes carefully for thirty years as anything. But jeans didn’t seem best for work–it was stretch-cotton, ankle-length black slacks that suited me.

I started working in my thirties after my five children were ensconced in school. My first good job was assisting older adults who were disabled by such medical conditions as stroke and Parkinson’s’ disease. Soon I became manager of a large home care services department. I wore high heels and dresses or skirts and tops daily. Our budget was tight so I often shopped at Goodwill to supplement my newer clothes. It was not fashionable to buy second hand clothing but it worked out well. Dressing up for work was a joy after years of wearing jeans and t-shirts. They were both needed uniforms. I had a household to manage; my husband often travelled and I had my hands full.

venetian-clothes-line-mindy-newman

(Painting, “Venetian Clothesline”, by Mindy Newman)

I don’t work for a paycheck, as I quit my job in November. (I write,  which most people would say isn’t work, though it feels like it despite no monetary reward yet.) My counseling (or just employee) days may not be entirely over. Thus, work clothing still takes up the bulk of closet space. To be honest, two closets, large ones. I have accumulated a lot of variations of the themes of colors, styles, needs. There are shoes in stacked boxes and sweaters folded nicely in boxes. Off season clothing is in another room. I have more clothes than I know what to do with, yet I hold on.

I wear jeans daily now, with fleece when it is colder or knit tops when the breezes tease us with springy scents. No one see me for days except my husband or a family member who stops over.  So I dress easy. My daughters have told me I have so many t-shirts (with long and short sleeves) I could dedicate a whole closet to them. On my feet, sippers, though I hate to admit it, shoe snob that I’ve been in the past. They do feel great schlepping around my place, writing for hours at the computer.

Today I spotted a pair of white flats at Macy’s as I was lugging a bag of sale towels. I tried to get to the exit–what did I need shoes for?–but they beckoned me. They were on sale. Up close, they appeared comfortable yet stylish, the perfect combination. They had a cut-out motif that made them look feminine without being girly. I tried them on. They looked lovely in the mirror; I could walk without wincing. In warm weather, when extravagant flowers decorated emerald lawns and I could walk to church or stores without needing hiking boots to stay dry and warm, they would look…enchanting. They were be pretty and sturdy at once, my thinking insisted. And if I worked again, they would accent my professional duds.

So I bought them and took them home, put them on the closet shelf for a spring day. Maybe Easter.

shoes_girls_white_dress

I mused further. I had gotten a new pair of white shoes each Easter as a child. With white gloves, shiny Mary Janes and a pretty dress my mother made, I was all set for church, followed by the family playing music and a  roast beef dinner. Memories of that Sunday table came alive, from the crystal water goblets to the lilac tablecloth. I could nearly smell the steaming biscuits and taste the fruit salad with poppy seed dressing.

Had that been what stopped me as I had made my way out of the store earlier? With spring not far off, a longing for another time and place? My mother dressed beautifully, mostly due to her own creative skills. It was she who taught me appreciation of fine fabrics and elegant lines, how a good seam looked and held, how shorter or longer hems made a difference per eye and each occasion. She would have loved ogling the shoe racks with me; her high-heeled feet looked beautiful into her eighties.

I thought more about the sale shoes. I don’t need them, as I have a pair of white ones. Unless I get another job I will likely be barefoot when the buds unfurl and sunshine makes me want to dance. Or I will be wearing my Teva sandals when I hike in earnest. What makes me want to adorn myself with something I do not need besides our insistent culture of acquisition? When has the way I dressed made such a crucial difference? There are times I have needed to be “appropriate” or even “impressive”, but only in the eyes of this world. I love color and design, yes, but I can make art if that is so necessary to my peace of mind. Clothes are a very small part of everything.

easterdress

In fact, who I am is not very present in what I put on my body. It is a simple truth, but hits me soundly. I may be missing my work a bit– the camaraderie of working with others toward a common goal–or fancying the past. But who I am and will be is right here within me. The whole me, who does not have daily, professional support or even criticism. I long ago discovered I am not dependent on others for a secure sense of self, my “identity”. Who I have been, as a seven year old excited for Easter, a young adult struggling with challenges or a counselor who leans toward my client as his suffering is laid bare in exchange for a little peace–it all has origins here, within the invisible. My soul. We all have one, and no clothes or other accoutrements are needed to alter, hide or even adorn it.

I had a dream last night, a strange one wherein I was surrounded by people who were more like beings of another sort, without recognizable feature or form, yet full of vibrant, clear energy. No one spoke or said they loved me but I knew it by the way I felt as I floated among them. It was so powerfully magnetic that it pervaded every inch of me. One of them communicated without spoken words: “You are very pretty”, and I put my hands to my face and loudly protested. I  knew better. But they smiled at me, and the realization came that they might see me differently. And if here, in this dream place, I looked even a little as they did to me, I truly lived in beauty. How did these beings see me? I thought to educate them, and explained that my life wasn’t like theirs, it had been hard and not without significant failures. No one cared much. The love actually felt stronger; everyone shared it. When I finally heard “We have to leave you now”, I was terribly sad. I wanted that love to never end. But I awakened, deeply rested and at ease, and the awareness of whoever/whatever they were is with me still. We all need reminding of Divine Love. Everlasting love.

4689979273_dfe6487107_z iris

So maybe that is what the shoes are about, odd as it sounds. I remembered my childhood at the store, and Easter coming. I love shoes, it is true. But at the center of all this is the knowledge that I inhabit not just flesh and bones, but a soul. In fact, I am certain I was first and will last be that, alone. Everything in between is just filler. Tasks and travels. A chance to make good on the love we are given. Grace makes the difference. The grace of God, and also the grace we can cultivate in our daily lives with others: fluency in our conversations, finesse in our diplomacy, benevolence in interactions with those we do not understand, forgiveness of those who mean harm. We can train ourselves in discernment and decorum. We can live in graciousness, which becomes us all. The perfect raiment for this world, as well.

Still…I know you may be wondering about those sale shoes, which is where this piece began. One thing has led to another, and I’m thinking it over. There is a decent chance I’ll keep them for Easter and beyond. They look fun to wear, which matters, too, as long as I live in this body.

(Photo of the gorgeous iris–“A Graceful Dancer”–is attributed to Dorothy Mae.)

Thoughts from a Jobless Worker Bee

This is my first full day post-job. I awakened at 6:40 as usual. I showered and ate breakfast (raisin cinnamon oatmeal). I didn’t hurry up and get dressed in nice slacks, sweater and shoes because I never do that on Fridays; it is my usual day off. But I made a cup of coffee, and that was a bit alarming, as I drink chamomile vanilla tea on the mornings I don’t work. Coffee (one cup) is for working paid ten hour days; they made it pungently strong there and it got my blood flowing at top speed. I even add one-third of a mug hot water so I can get it down. Or, rather, added and could, as that occurred in the past. That was before the tough choices were made.

What somewhat older woman in her right mind would leave a job she loves in this economy? Right before Christmas? Is it arrogant stupidity to  just walk away from work that can afford extras like trips, arts events, a little help for our children and grandchildren, unecessary shoes and dinners out? My spouse has a decent job that he also likes  great deal. So I got up the courage to ask him what he thought. His reply: “Do it.”

I lingered over my newest copy of Architectural Digest and sipped my coffee. As usual, the houses I studied in the glossy pages were coolly elegant or startlingly imaginative or deeply, expensively comforting. But my vision blurred and I was right back at the meeting I had had the day before at HR. The exit meeting I had requested with the HR Director.

I had fretted about it for a week. I had written and edited what I was going to say, consulted with a few people who have been directors and managers, and determined the priorities with bold bullet points in my memory. In the end, I sat down and said,

“I am resigning after eight and a half years here, but I feel it is under duress. I love my work and have for over twenty-five years at many places, serving a variety of populations. So, I need to tell you why I am choosing to leave.”

The woman before me was calm, relaxed and chatty. She talked about my work at the agency, some of the events and changes that marked the years. She spoke with me as  though we were chatting and I knew she was talented, with a good eye for what my face was saying, a good mind for discerning the larger truth between my words. (She was another sort of counselor, and she laughed when I noted that.) And because I respected her manner and methods, appreciated her gentle composure, I forgot what I had written. I just talked.

Still, how does one talk about things that make no good sense or are painful, experiences that are baffling and finally dismaying? How does a counselor talk about a business that is supposed to be helmed and served by dedicated individuals providing compassionate and ethically excellent services–but has failed in some crucial ways? If I was writing fiction I could tell the tale in all its surprising details; the anxiety would bleed out of it, and the anger would be easily dispensed and dispelled. But simply summarizing the facts?

But M. listened well. She asked the right questions. She responded with empathy, dismay, insight, support. She, in fact, understood so well and knew so much more than I expected that it suddenly felt as though she was on my team. She, too, clearly advocated for others, clients and staff. And even though I was blowing a whistle, she took my words and gave them more stoutness, and put them in a neat row to further examine. And said: “I am so sorry.”

A note here: I am hardly the silent one in a roomfull; I have a habit of nearly always speaking my mind, for good or ill. If difficult things still get swept under the rug, I lift it up and pull it back out more often than not. I abhor unethical behavior, actions (or inaction) that deliberately harm others, ignoring the truth even though it is messy, choosing to deceive which is the coward’s way out. I want us all to be accountable, myself first of all, and even after a lifetime of knowing that isn’t always going to happen, I am willing to take a risk and say either “I am at fault” or “you may well be.” There is nothing safe about this. I am not an adrenalin junkie; I don’t crave drama. I just want things to work out well,  if at all possible– for my clients, and for those I work with. And myself. And if things are not set completely right, then made better. Much better.

I was clear of purpose when I decided to leave my position for reasons of safety, both emotional and environmental. But when I told my clients, it became stickier. The working environment is one thing. But my clients are another. They have fewer choices that I have. They have very big problems: addiction and mental health, housing and economics, domestic violence, health and legal issues. Can I say this? I have loved them, each and every one, in some way. I made a decision when I was twenty, sitting in a place that fully resembled hell, to be of merciful, steadfast service, an advocate for others if I made it out alive. I promised God, to be truthful. And I made it out. Fifteen years later I walked out into the world with my paltry work history (but a mother of five) and nagging sense of failure and I was given the gift of a little job that was the start of making good on that promise. I was ecstatic to be able to watch over wounded, ill and otherwise challenged adults in an adult day care for minimum wage. From that start I began a career.

I haven’t looked back, though the work has morphed in many ways. Each day has brought me the chance to be of some use, and to hold their lives up to them in the light of hope, tell them they can recover and heal. Create solutions, inaugurate change. Grow stronger, be even braver. And they have and they do. I listen with great appreciation of their efforts, as they are more often than not heroic beyond imagining.

So saying good-bye to them was tough. Hearing their responses to the news took me to the brink of tears a few times, although I reassured them other counselors who would be just as helpful. I am clear that I am not the only one who cares–human service workers are innumerable, working in many difficult, even dangerous conditions. I know this because I have worked alongside of them.

So why did I leave? Sometimes you just know when it is best to exit. Sometimes you need to take a break, even though it seems an extravagant and risky thing to do. For me, it came down to the fact that needed changes could have happened, and yet did not; issues that sent an alarm within me after all these years were ignored by people who might have addressed them. And maybe I need to do other work, even work that has no monetary reward. Or just rest.

But back to M. and me.  She was attentive and heard me and was distressed, too. I am amazed. She took many pages of notes. She assured me that something would be done to address the concerns. And she suggested that if I still wanted to work there, I might reconsider. I should stay in touch with her. But it is not the right time to rescind the resignation. My voice had been raised for months and it had seemed to come to nothing until this hour. I was fortunate to have a chance to share it with someone who had power and I trusted her. We shook hands. I left with her good words in my ear. As I walked away, I waved to three other employees with whom I had worked over the years. I wanted to stop and say,”Hey, you have been great to work with–but I’m outta here.” But I smiled and went on my way.

Later, I listened to Yo-Yo Ma play his vibrant, expressive cello and I cried.  For myself, for things that have no clear lexicon. But I can tell you this: validation is a vindication as sweet as it gets, especially when you least expect it. And yet it is humbling, too.

Now it is the end of the day. I did all the things on my list. I don’t have one for tomorrow. I look out over a momentarily work-free (for pay, that is) horizon and I know something will happen that is interesting. That piques my curiosity. It always does. And I will be writing about it and wondering over it.