No box for me!

Another march this week. Another round of demonstrations, and people holding signs with angry words to get their message across.

What if we held people in our arms, instead of signs in our hands?

We’re a divided culture, in so many ways. Identity politics are everywhere, and personally, I’m just weary of it all.

We’re so flooded with messaging to stand up for this group, stand with that group, to self-identify by race, gender, nationality, cultural heritage, faith, political party, etc., etc., etc.

Can I just be human?

I’m a woman, a wife, a mom, a grandmother, a daughter, a friend, a college graduate, an employee, a writer, a Christian, a voter.

I’m all of these things, and more. I’m subtle. I’m nuanced.

I don’t like being pigeonholed, put neatly into any box.

Because I don’t fit neatly into any box.

I don’t want to compete with any group, or feel myself in opposition to anyone. I don’t see myself in a woman vs man world, in an “I win, you lose” life model. I hope we all win. The reality is, though the ideal is to make everyone equal, the words and attitudes displayed by militants in movements reflect more hate than hope. I hear angry demands and harsh rhetoric.

There was a time in this country, and in the western world, when marching for rights was important. Raising awareness was important. Workers’ rights, women’s rights, civil rights, children’s rights…there was an era when all those groups had to fight to be seen, to be heard, to be represented at the table of democracy, citizenship, and human rights.

And there are still many countries and cultures throughout the world that need to change, need to see all humans as people of value, of worth, and show that care of the most vulnerable in society is a mark of the strongest society. Because when we care for the weakest among us, we show how brave we really are. We show our integrity, as a whole, as a society, as a culture.

I don’t believe we in the United States of America, or in any western country, have it all figured out. We’ll never get it all right; we’re human, and we’re flawed. But can I just say, rather than encouraging people to march, can we encourage people to work?

If you want to make a difference for any group, do something more powerful than taking a day to march for your cause. Show up at a school that needs volunteers, show up at a retirement home that needs people to sit with residents, at a homeless shelter that needs help cleaning or doing of anything useful, at a park that needs cleaning up…you pick your place, choose your gift.

But show up to work.

Every time I see a group marching, I wonder what all that energy and those hours could do if the time was given to productive work? Volunteer work that didn’t charge for service?

What couldn’t we do? What couldn’t we change?

Or better than a one-day commitment, what about showing up every week?

You know, I never valued teachers more than when I subbed in school systems during our early years in Alaska. I saw for myself, first-hand, the struggles, the shortages, the responsibilities we put on the teaching community. I saw their world in a whole new way.

I never understood the world of health care, until I began to work in primary care clinics, and got to see, up close, the struggles, the shortages, the responsibilities we put on health care professionals. I saw their world in a whole new way.

What I’ve learned is this…you don’t march your way to understanding injustice and need.

You work your way to understanding.

You have to see to understand. You have to show up, get involved. You can read about all sorts of issues and problems, you can watch documentaries on TV. But until you see for yourself, you won’t really get it.

Want to understand the plight of immigrants? Find a way to work with immigrants. Want to understand the impact of illegal drugs on our society? Work with people struggling to overcome their addiction, and with families trying to survive the blows to their homes, to the children of addicts.

Want to understand the nightmare of the sex slave industry? Connect with organizations who are working to free people caught in that trap.

The point is, awareness grows when you get out in the community and see, for yourself, the hurts, the losses, the weak, and the vulnerable, the gaps in community and government.

Want to understand how building healthy families strengthens the whole society? Work with children bounced from foster home to foster home. Want to understand the health care crisis? Spend some time in under-funded, under-staffed clinics.

When statistics become faces and names, you’re beginning to understand.

I wish we were color-blind, gender-blind, status-blind, and kind.

I wish we were all just willing to be kind: to give a cup of cold water, to lend a hand; to understand that life is hard, and we’re here to make it easier. If we do that much, we’ve done so much.

Know what I love to see in my FB feed? I love to see positive, to see people doing good, to see people being the change. I love to see people sharing their time, their faith, their talents, their money, their energy.

I challenge you to work rather than to march; to act rather than falling back on mere words; to contribute, rather than criticize.

There’s a story I love. Maybe you’ve heard it?

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer and called out ‘Good morning! May I ask what you’re doing?’

The young man looked up and replied, ‘Throwing starfish into the ocean.’

‘Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?’ asked the somewhat startled man.

The young man replied, ‘The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.’

The wise man was stunned. ‘But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!’

The young man bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it into the ocean.

As it met the water, he said, ‘It made a difference to that one.’

Adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley (1907-1977)

The other thing you can do? Look for root causes. See what you can do that gets to the source of the problem. It’s great to throw star fish back into the ocean, or to help people with their most basic needs. But what if you took the time to understand cause and effect, to look for ways to make a lasting impact? That’s how you create real change.

I don’t do heroic things…I’m not saving lives, or teaching children who’ll be the leaders of tomorrow. I bloom where I’m planted, and for me, that means making a difference in small rural communities by helping with health care staffing, helping with loan applications, helping with grants, helping new people transition into the community. I encourage, I feed, I build up. And I write. I try to make a difference by planting seeds, and ideas, and by saying: I will not be put into a box, be made to feel guilty that I don’t embrace identity politics or focus on pieces of myself, as though I can be neatly sectioned.

I beg you, celebrate your life, and the lives around you, by working, not marching. By doing, not just speaking out. By seeing for yourself, first-hand, the issues and causes, before you judge what should be, or should not be. Open your eyes to the needs around you. They’re everywhere, and you don’t have to be a hero to make a difference. You don’t even have to risk much. You just have to be willing to work, to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly.

And please, don’t put yourself, or anyone else, in an identity box. That’s not who we are. We’re all so much more than “just” gender, race, ideology, profession, economic status, nationality.

We’re human. And humans don’t belong in boxes.



Bringing out the best

One of my tasks for the clinic in Metlakatla is recruiting for providers, and once a position is offered and accepted, I follow up with logistics support. That means I answer a million questions about moving, ferries, barges, lodging, transportation, pets, support, etc., etc., etc. By the time the new provider arrives, I feel like we’re old friends.

I haven’t helped with the hiring process for other staff until recently when I was asked to follow up with a new nurse joining the clinic this month. She’s moving up from the mid-west, sight unseen. That alone is enough to get my attention. Moving to Alaska is advanced logistics, a lot more complex than cross country moves in the “lower 48.” Moving to a small remote island in Alaska requires even more attention to detail. Stepping off the edge without a preview…well, that takes a braver spirit than I’ve got.

So, after a few conversations and emails, I was feeling well acquainted with the new nurse. She was scheduled to arrive on Sunday, March 9, and I wasn’t surprised to see her number come up on my phone last Thursday. I figured she was checking in one last time before getting on the ferry on Friday.

The voice on the phone was a little shaky and I could tell something was wrong. I asked her if she was ok, and the immediate response was “No, I’m not doing very well, I need some help!” She was on the edge of tears and obviously distressed. I listened to her story, mind racing about what to do.

She had driven a U-Haul across the country to Washington and was planning to come up to Alaska on the ferry. Furniture, household goods, clothes, mementoes from her mother and grandmother…everything was in the U-Haul. Sometime during the previous night, her vehicle and the U-Haul were stolen from the hotel parking lot. The hotel had a surveillance video of the theft and had filed a report with the police. But she was unsure of her next steps.

We quickly put a plan together. I told her she could certainly delay her start date if she needed to stay in Washington to deal with the theft. She said she preferred to keep her original plans as there was nothing she could do there but wait. At least in Metlakatla she could be working. The clinic had arranged for her to stay in a furnished house, and I knew we could work out a loaner vehicle for her. Still, I was impressed that she wasn’t curled into a fetal position. We made a plan to meet when she arrived in Ketchikan Sunday morning on the Washington ferry. She was bringing her two labs with her, and I offered to pick her up and get her to the Met ferry later that morning.

Sunday…I called this morning to be sure she was off the ferry and pinpoint a meeting place. The voice on the phone sounded positive, upbeat, even excited. I thought the two day trip up from Washington had probably helped…you lose cell service, so you’re unplugged from the world. Probably a good thing in this case.

We met for the first time, got the dogs and baggage in the car, and over coffee and breakfast, I got the next chapter of the story.

Her vehicle and U-Haul had been found, but the vehicle wasn’t drivable. The police still had it when she left on Friday, and she had to sort out the next steps with the insurance company. In the meantime, her story was picked up by the local newspaper. She had a steady stream of visitors at the hotel before she left, with people stopping by to bring her clothes and miscellaneous things to help fill her needs. She had one suitcase after the theft and when I picked her up this morning she had seven bags…six more filled by people trying to help.

The most poignant story she shared was about a gift of money she received. From a reformed thief.

About midnight the day after the theft, she got a call from the hotel front desk staff saying someone was there to see her. She went down and met a woman who told her that her boyfriend was a former thief. When he sees a situation like hers, he tries to help as much as he can. The woman gave her $500 and left. No address, no name for follow up. Just gave the money and left.

There’s something powerful about a story like that.

I’m still absorbing the thought of payback, or is that paying forward? Righting wrongs? Not sure how to label that act of kindness. But something about it seems profound, like being witness to a path to redemption. I wish I could follow that story, but that’s probably the most important part…that no one can follow, the gift was anonymous, an honest attempt to make up in some way for former dishonesty.

The Best Western gave her free lodging.

The ferry service upgraded her.

She had people who realized who she was giving her notes, offers of help in multiple ways. A link to her story went out to the clinic staff in Metlakatla on Friday. I think the whole community of 1500 people is ready to embrace her.

When I drove up to the Met ferry to offload her things, the crew already knew she was coming and were ready to assist.

One of the nurses at the clinic offered a vehicle for her use.

It’s not even my story, and I’m overwhelmed.

Once again, I see that for all the sad and terrible things in the world, there are people to help, to care, to comfort. And while no one can replace the things that were lost, maybe the lasting impact will be the generosity and the kindness from strangers, finding compassion when someone is down, offering help when it’s needed. I know I could pick up the paper, or go online, and find stories that would show the ugly side of life. Those are out there too, sadly every day. But for today, I got to see the other side, up close and personal. And I think I’ll sit with this for a while, and savor the good stuff.

The everyday kindness of the back roads more than makes up for the acts of greed in the headlines. ~ Charles Kuralt

Intentional living

I’m thinking a lot about sustainability lately. What do I currently do, and what will I begin, that is sustainable? Not that everything in life should be sustained. Some things have a defined season, a limited time to be useful or even possible. But I’m growing more thoughtful about the habits and commitments I allow to take root in my life. Because, sometimes, even without intention, behaviors cling. Isn’t it funny how difficult it is to foster habits you want to acquire and nurture (think working out) and how easily you fall into habits that can sap your time and give little in return (endless internet browsing or channel surfing). Well, I’ve never had too much difficulty with TV, and can happily report that I rarely miss it since we cut the cable cord last summer.

But the internet…it just sucks me in. Sometimes I find things that are helpful, useful, inspirational. And sometimes I just drift among the sites that fascinate me. Pinterest, Houzz, Twitter, blogs…..where was I?

Yes, yes, intentional living. Well, to be more grounded in habits I want to foster in myself and encourage in others, I’m beginning a couple of journals…private, but intended to foster values that are important to me. First, I am beginning a gratitude journal. Hardly a new concept, and I think I already have a mindset of gratitude. But writing it down will make it clearer, and I hope will give visible proof that I am aware of the many good things and people that touch my life.

Second, I’m beginning a journal of kindness. I want to mark kindness and generosity from me to others, and from others to me. Why? Not to pat myself on the back, but to reinforce for myself that there is no limit to the ways we can spread thoughtfulness and a positive spirit. I hope by noting the acts and words of others toward me that I will be more aware of the ways people reach out to me.

I don’t want either of these journals/lists to be exhaustive. That would be exhausting, and would probably result in another couple of new year’s resolutions that would soon be abandoned. The point is to increase awareness, and I think noting even a few items I’m grateful for each day, or a few acts of kindness, will be enough to keep these things in the forefront of my thoughts.

A kindness journal, a gratitude journal…I think I can sustain these habits. I have a feeling adding these two brief to-dos to my daily routine will be inspiring and worth doing. And who knows what I’ll discover in the process?!

Community in action

In the last week I saw a community in action…well, it was a small group within the little town of Craig, AK. But these people accomplished a feat. They were able to get a man, virtually homeless and penniless, to the care of physicians at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.

This is the story.

Rob and I came to this clinic to work for three weeks on November 28. During our first few days, there were several conversations among clinic staff about a man who was in dire need of medical attention. He has no insurance, no money, and almost no support structure in Craig. I learned he had come here some time ago to take care of his mother, who died last year. He has some social issues, to put it politely. To put it bluntly, he is dirty, agoraphobic, and has a noticeable odor.

This man became a patient when he’d recently experienced a change in his voice. 50-ish, he has been a long-term smoker. A man in town who befriended him persuaded him to come to the clinic a few weeks ago to get checked out. A large tumor was found to be pressing on his vocal chords and impacting his airway.

The front office staff began to work on getting care lined up. You do not treat cancer in Craig. You leave and travel to a large medical center to get access to the various specialists your condition requires. From this region of Alaska, that resource is most often found in Seattle, WA. But in this situation, sending this man away with no funds and no support wasn’t an option.

It was discovered that there is a brother in North Carolina, living near Duke, one of the largest medical research facilities in the country. A medical referral was made; social workers contacted. The brother there agreed to receive the brother here. Medical costs will be underwritten by Medicaid.

But…Alaska is a looong way from North Carolina. It is expensive to make a trip like that. And this man couldn’t get there on his own. Turns out the brother is in financial difficulties too, so also unable to finance such a trip. Typically Medicaid will cover travel costs, but for some reason, not in this case.

So an application was made to a national organization that provides free air travel for medical emergencies…just like this situation. For a few days there was faxing and phoning back and forth. The office coordinator spent hours of her time working out details, making calls to solidify plans, meeting with the patient to reassure him of progress.

Then three days before the patient had to travel, the flight plans fell through. The organization was willing to cover travel to Seattle or Anchorage, but not to a location so far away, and outside the standard medical destinations for needy Alaskans. The manager was very polite…he wished they could help everyone, but this was clearly outside their policy parameters.

So, back to square one, with the clock ticking.

Someone suggested the local community cancer coalition might help. The office coordinator called, and within half an hour, two ladies representing the coalition were sitting in the clinic, listening to the story. Turns out they provide up to $1500 to cover travel expenses for medical care. You make an application, make the travel arrangements, and apply for reimbursement.

Someone produced a credit card. Airline ticket, ferry ticket to Ketchikan, airport ferry ticket were all purchased. The coalition would reimburse with a check.

The ferry travel to Ketchikan was full price, but when the accountant for the ferry company came in to the clinic for an appointment, the office coordinator mentioned to her that the staff was trying to assist this patient. The ferry accountant immediately offered to get the fare discounted, which she promptly did.

A nurse from Ketchikan with family in North Carolina was already scheduled to fly back and offered to escort the patient through the travel stages. The friend who brought the patient in escorted him to Ketchikan so he had no time on the journey that he was alone or without support.

So, a small town that supports a local cancer coalition, clinic employees, a caring friend, a nurse traveling home, a brother a long way off, social workers and medical providers on the other side of the country all worked together. And they pulled it off.

I don’t know how this story will end. I don’t know if this patient has a chance of surviving. I do he would have had no chance if he had stayed in Craig. Whatever happens, he has the gift of possibility this season. And the gift came from the community, given freely, knowing there would be no payback for the time, money or energy that it took to be successful.

Even more poignant, this man is not from Craig; he is not a pillar of the community; he is barely known here. But they helped anyway. No one will get credit, or special notice, for this effort. But this man will get a chance.

This isn’t a Christmas story of a gift given because of the time of year. Timing had nothing to do with it, except that the need was urgent. But it shows me the best of small town life. Small communities don’t have large medical centers. They don’t have unlimited resources. But when you need to get something done in a hurry, you know who to call. You’re not a faceless application form in someone’s email. And that’s the second part of this story.

Small towns can show off the best of community. And I just had a front row seat.