Making melodies out of the humdrum.

Friday, October 1, 2010

On Reading and Social Working

I went to a high school in a small town just northwest of Boston, Massachusetts. Looking back, the whole experience was pretty edgy. I don't use that adjective lightly or loosely. I'll explain how it fits.
I, for one, was edgy-- not so much in the trendy, hipster way, but in the anxious way. Besides the fact that it was a bit of a zoo back at the ranch, (thanks Mom and Dad), I was pretty high-strung about grades and extra-curriculars and college--making sure that if I couldn't be # 1 at everything, then darn-it I would be closer than ever. (Read: buzz-kill. And I wasn't a was better that way.)
However, My teachers were edgy in all those free-to-be-me ways that make life light. Many of them were young and athletic and fresh out of college, wide-eyed and ready to do their part. Among the cool clan, was my English teacher, Ms. Baldwin. Every word she said was smart and perfect. She went to Swarthmore for undergrad and was dating a tall and dark Harvard academe. She also wore these purple scarves a lot, and sometimes at the lunch table we'd talk about providing her with some accessorizing support but then again what did we know? We were fourteen year old girls. And besides, she liked her purple scarves, and probably wasn't afraid to.
Ms. Baldwin lifted words off the page for me. The really wooden English terminology like "plot-line" and "past participles" that we poured over in the eighth grade didn't matter in Ms. Baldwin's class. Now, it was the ideas that mattered so when we read, everything mattered; the nuances, the analogies, the authorial intent, what the characters said and didn't say...
And so it was, "" In class we got to flesh out the ellipsis. Recognize the gaps. The beauty of the literature suspended it all quite perfectly. My job then, was to connect and align the ingenuity of all that the author didn't say and makes something of it...something new and mine. The potential of my artistic license and the rich meaning in the text’s logic balanced me. All was well. While just a year ago, I was pulling my hair out over a stupid "grammar police" project (that was the name of the assignment, and ever since I'm convinced grammar is nothing but a power trip...), now I was weaving together glory alongside Sidney Carton and facing my mortality in Ms. Havisham's eerie home (Thank you, Mr. Dickens).
Suffice it to say, I took Ms. Baldwin's feedback rather seriously so I still cringe when I remember the way she spoke into my sweet little ego one ninth grade afternoon. We got our papers back on Mondays, and she had returned mine, with a "See Me." "See me?" I thought. I had worked so long and hard on this paper! And I think, in the midst, of shedding new light on the"Raisin in the Sun" metaphor I may have found the answer to world peace. I knew Ms. Baldwin was tough...but so was I! I wanted an A...not a "See Me."
I walked up to her. "Hi," I said. "I got this 'see me?' " I showed her what she had written. Ms. Baldwin went right in: "So, you have this thing with words, Sarah, " she said it and set her coffee cup down, ending the thought. I felt so embarassed. She kept going. Crap. "You have really great ideas, but why don't you just write what you know? Say what you mean. And be direct." After a bit of conversation, some humbling instruction and a gracious second chance, I walked away from Ms. Baldwin's desk and down the C-wing of Masconomet Regional High School, dejected mostly because I knew she was right. I had work to do if I wanted to be any good and for better or for worse, I desperately did.
I still have this obsession with words and all their bells and whistles- the metaphors and the analogies and the hyperboles. I like to make things pretty with adjectives and to cozy on into new notions, ideas and characters the way Jane Austen does with sounds like "felicity" and "undulating." In high school, I worked to follow Ms. Baldwin's instructions, to make myself a writer and to use words to say what I meant and to mean what I said. In college, I became swept up in the ethereal postmodernism of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. It was all very enlightening and most of the time left me asking totally pointless questions like, "What are the limits of language?" "What is form?" "What's in a word?" As an English major I wrote these heavy theoretical papers intrigued by the greater meanings of novelistic form and structure and how that linked to the social sentiments of the time. Somehow World War I always wormed it's way in there too. I know, I know, it all sounds really cool…
Now, I'm a social worker, out of school over a year now, and yup, I'm still a logophile. I had wordy love-fests in grad school too, only this time it was with family therapy orientations-- I found some I liked, and I wrote papers that probed the nature of therapy, therapeutic technique and psycho-analytic theories. I guess that's all well and good, and indeed, communication is at the crux of a lot of helping. And words, in turn, are at the crux of a lot of communication.
But, I'm learning, much to my dismay, more words are not always the point. What about un-wording? What about silence? What about the fact that some things, that are so rich and unsearchable, are made too small by our words? If I were to write another English paper, this is what I would call it: “How stories of suffering make us silent.”
My work as a social worker is a lot like the small scope of work I've done as a reader-- except it's infinitely more real. In the work I do now, there are gaps to fill in, just like there were when I attempted to pull apart the post-modern canon. There are notions, and ideals and thematic elements that inform the questions I ask and the conclusions I draw. But this time around, the gaps and unspoken truths are not in between humorous characters or signature dialects. The gaps are human ones- raw and fleshy. True and sorry. And they leave us perplexed, longing for justification "Now what did this seven year old do to get treated like that?" I suppose I could look to the research (generational poverty, cyclical abuse, victimization, parents as batterers for example) to help give rhyme and reason to something that has none. And in fact, I do. To try and add things up is intuitive behavior for me and I think it's the point of a lot of my profession. But, when I’m in the moment and in my office, watching a small mouth speak very grown-up words, I must rely on the grace of silence that sits between my client and myself. I am learning to trust that the grace will come.
But it's hard, when I am so inclined to speak into things. The richest passages of my books are annotated several times over…my questions and exclamations dot the pages. I want to make more of them. And here is the tension of my job and my work which also feels a lot like my calling: “Is it okay to want to make more of someone else’s story?” To continue the metaphor, “is it okay to annotate a human life” And how much? When does it get obnoxious? I don’t know. I also don't really know what human margins look like, or if we even have them, but if we do, I think they are quite sacrosanct.
This year, I am learning that I do not need to holler into emptiness to ascertain an echo. I do not need to make music or chatter to fill the room even when everything feels far too vulnerable to be useful. Because usefulness (even though my very capitalistic, westernized, Protestant work ethic self cowers) is not the point. The point is loving presence. Compassionate non-judgement.
I know that social work is not the most academically rigorous or research-ready or competitive kind of work…it’s actually sort of at the bottom of all of that. But if hearts can be enlightened, which I think they can, I hope I let my clients make mine so, the same way my beloved book characters opened me up in Ms. Baldwin's class. But this time around, eleven years later, I want to feel opened and alive not because anything has been put together, or figured out, but because my heart has mustered the stamina to bear the mystery and the silence.