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Monthly Archives: June 2018

Who do I want to be when I grow up?

I still want to be a novelist when I grow up. I want to write about people’s lives and about all of the things we don’t usually tell each other about ourselves. I want to connect. My favorite thing about social work is when people stop feeling judged and defensive, and can just tell their own stories, with all of the unique zigs and zags their lives have taken. I’m often surprised when people don’t realize how interesting their own stories are, and how unique their choices and circumstances have been. It’s like reading a really long, really good, book.

I still wish I could be a Mom and a wife, but that’s starting to seem unlikely. The thing is, both social work and writing put me in an observer role, and no matter how much I like my work, I still need some way to feel like my life, in itself, is important. I need the chance to be the star of my own story. Dogs definitely help with that. They seem to make everyone feel more central and more important. I’ve considered having a side practice focused on dogs, where we’d sit on the floor and I would give ear scratches and commiserate with the long journey each dog has had to go through. I would love that.

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“I have a lot to say!”

I’m still unclear about what actually constitutes growing up. I used to think that, at some point, I’d feel more secure and confident in myself, and my choices, and I’d finally feel like I have a clue how to live my life. This has clearly not happened to me yet, and it doesn’t really describe most of the people I know who would generally be considered grownups.

The more external signs of being grown up, to me, were always about career, and home ownership and parenthood. But as time goes by I’ve had to question those markers, because a lot of people do not own homes, or have children, and still seem like grownups to me. And, even though it’s less popular, or possible nowadays, a lot of women still seem very much like grownups to me, even if they never had a professional career outside of the home. It’s something in the way they take responsibility for themselves, or have authority over others, or seem to accept themselves for who they are at a basic level.

In my mind, being sick, with whatever it is I have, prevents me from being a grown up. Grownups are people who can do things all day and take on big responsibilities, not people who need three hour naps and wrap themselves in icy hot strips on a regular basis. Grownups know how to take care of everything that needs to be taken care of, and don’t have an excessive amount of anxiety wafting around them at all times.

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“You can fix it, Mommy.”

Cricket has no aspirations towards being a grown up. She’s focused on her daily needs for food, exercise, and love. She insists that being a grown up is overrated if it means spending too much time away from her.

It’s hard to argue with Cricket.

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“Why would you even try?”

 

 

More School

 

I am officially a part time graduate student in social work, which is why it will take me three and a half years to finish a two year program, but to me, this program feels like full time. I have classmates who are getting it all done in two years, while still working, and raising families, and I have no idea how they’re doing that. Part of my problem is that I insist on doing all of the reading for my classes, and writing multiple drafts for each assignment. I’ve been told that I’m a perfectionist, but I honestly don’t know how to do it any other way without setting off severe panic attacks that are much more disabling than the extra work. The other basic problem is that I don’t have the energy I’m supposed to have. Fourteen hours of internship a week, plus driving, is pretty much my limit, because I still have to do food shopping, and laundry, and maybe go to synagogue or a doctor’s appointment. I’m not hanging out at the mall during my downtime, I’m either napping, or doing schoolwork. Every once in a while I’m writing, but not anywhere near as often as I’d like.

It doesn’t help that large portions of my education have felt like busy work and endless repetition. There’s so much more I want to learn, and once I’m working, even part time, I won’t have the energy to read about, and train in, all of the techniques I want to learn. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing now. I would have loved to skip both statistics courses, or even scrub them from my memory. And I’d love to forget everything I’ve ever learned about writing in APA style while I’m at it.

Cricket and Butterfly both played a big role in my decision to pursue social work. Butterfly, because of her eight years in the puppy mill and her heart problems and diabetes, made me see that taking care of her made me feel whole and more myself, rather than more burdened. But she also made it much more clear to me that dogs can help heal people. Just by being around her, with her endless capacity for joy and strong sense of self, healed something in me, and I wanted to be able to share that with other people.

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Miss Butterfly, full of joy!

Miss Cricket is a different story. She is certainly a role model for speaking your truth and putting your needs first, but she also struggles with what I can only describe as a neurological disorder, an inability to tolerate her own emotions, as if they are magnified to a hundred times normal size. She is on high alert at all times, aware of dangers that no one else can see, and unable to recover easily from excitement, anger, or anxiety.

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Grumpy Cricket

I’ve tried all of the traditional routes for helping a reactive dog, with training classes, and medications, and calming treats, and love and compassion, but she still struggles. I see people like her all the time, diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder or ADHD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder and on and on. And I know that they can be helped, by medication and therapy and other interventions, and I wanted to learn more about those interventions, in the hope that they could be of help to Cricket.

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Cricket and Grandma, practicing Cricket’s favorite kind of therapy

Unfortunately, I haven’t found much support in graduate school for working with dogs, either as clients or as therapy supports. This seems like a huge hole in the curriculum. Cricket needs a boatload of therapy, but none of the techniques I’ve learned has really worked for her. Yes, I do my active listening and show compassion for her feelings, but then when I try to offer insight, she shuts me out. The fact is, not everyone can express themselves in words, though Cricket tries her best. Some people, and dogs, need other avenues of expression and support, but we haven’t really touched on that much in school. Phooey.

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We are both disappointed

I still have three more classes to finish before I can graduate, and then I have to take my licensing exam, so, there’s still about a year to go before I will be a licensed social worker. It feels like a lot, but it also feels like barely a moment. I’ve always wished I could have help figuring out how to use my writing to help with social work, and to build my writing career and social work career at the same time, without sacrificing either one. But I haven’t seen any courses in that yet.

This blog has been my saving grace throughout school, reminding me that I still have a self and my own stories to tell, but I miss writing fiction, and getting involved in long projects, and developing characters. I don’t miss sending my work out to endless rejections, that’s a soul killing enterprise, but writing itself is something different altogether. That’s where I can come to life and be fully myself and work though every different part of who I am.

And Cricket really wants me to write a mystery starring a brilliant little dog with a nose for clues. Hopefully we’ll be able to work on that someday soon.

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Reconstructing Judaism

 

My synagogue belongs to a small branch of Judaism called Reconstructionism. I think there are something like a hundred Reconstructionist congregations, and three hundred and fifty Reconstructionist rabbis, in North America, so it is a small, but not invisible movement. I’ve never quite considered myself a Reconstructionist Jew, though, the way some people identify as Modern Orthodox or Reform or Conservative. I’ve only belonged to this synagogue for six years now, so it’s more that I like my congregation in particular. I still just consider myself Jewish, without a specifier.

I like that the Reconstructionists emphasize that we can make our own choices, about what to believe and how to practice, instead of having to go to the rabbi for his or her dictum. I like that the Reconstructionist movement ordained one of the first female rabbis (way back when), and celebrated the first official bat mitzvah (even further back), two things that are now common place in liberal Judaism. But I get overwhelmed by the social activism, or Tikun Olam, that is emphasized daily at my synagogue. It’s hard to watch eighty year olds go on protest march after protest march and retain any sense of self-respect when I say that I can’t go, or don’t even want to.

I was not educated by Reconstructionists as a child. I went to a Conservative day school and sleep away camp, and then to a Modern Orthodox junior high and high school. Pressure came from every direction, to fit in, rather than to choose for myself or think for myself. And it took a long time for me to find a synagogue, as an adult, where I felt comfortable just as myself. I like that I can choose to get involved in the things that fit me, like Friday night services and discussions, and avoid the things that don’t fit me, like committees, or getting on a bus to Albany to try to convince politicians to change laws. And really, until they accept dogs on these marches and trips, why would Cricket ever let me go without her?

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“Don’t leave me!”

My graduate program in social work has a (very) activist bent as well, so I get a lot of pressure from certain teachers to pursue societal change, rather than to focus on individual people and hearing their stories (which is my favorite part of social work). The fact is, I don’t want to convince people of things; I want to know them, and I want them to know me. And if that changes something for each of us, so much the better.

All of this came up recently because a couple of speakers from the Reconstructionist movement came to speak to my congregation on a Friday night. I was hoping for some wisdom and inspiration, but instead they talked about branding, and the need for more resources from us (money and time, two things I don’t have). It was exhausting, and alienating, and I had to work very hard not to walk out. Cricket would have been barking her head off if she’d been invited to the service, which may explain why she, and her doggy cohort, was not invited.

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“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mommy. I’m a good girl.”

For legal reasons that I still don’t understand, the leadership of the Reconstructionist movement had to change its official name this year, and they came up with Reconstructing Judaism. One of the speakers told us, defensively (because they’ve heard a lot of pushback), that it’s a great name because it’s a verb and implies action. And I felt like she was saying that being a Reconstructionist is an activity rather than an identity.

We are Jew-ing instead of Jewish.

But, what if I’m not up to Jew-ing one day? What if I’m tired and need a nap, does that mean I lose my identity? I don’t want to be told that my belonging to a community depends on the activities other people want me to do; that’s the same kind of rigidity I experienced growing up with Orthodoxy, just with a new set of rituals.

So maybe I will just remain a Jew, without a specifier. The fact is, I don’t mind doing the daily work of reconstructing my own version of Judaism, at my own pace, and based on my own feelings and beliefs. I just don’t want to be told that we all want, and think, and do, the same things; or that we should, if we want to belong. That’s not reconstructing Judaism, that’s reconstructing me to fit into Judaism. And I’m not okay with that.

Cricket thinks it’s ridiculous too. No one tells Cricket who to be.

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“No one tells me what to do, Mommy. No one.”