Faces of Eve

The experience of conducting collaborative community-based research in the red light Sonagachi district in Kolkata India is transforming me. It’s hard to say exactly what is happening to my mental and emotional frameworks (I think that insight will emerge over time), but I can maybe report on what I hope is happening.

DurbarOne of the great gifts of being in India is the freedom it gives me to be patient, and to be accepting, and to let conversations, halting moments, and imperfections occur without becoming frustrated. For example, today we conducted two of our interviews in a narrow alley, in the rain, with onlookers, dogs, and passers by. I was amazed at the interviewees’ generosity with their time and stories. (Sometimes, when I do get frustrated, I remind myself, I am in India, and this is not my terrain, and I need to let it all unfold as it chooses to. My will is not important: Holding this internal dialogue has been freeing in the utmost). I dearly hope that, when I return to the U.S., I can maintain this same dispassionate curiosity as to the unfolding of my practice, my agency’s work, and my client’s lives. I’m not meaning I will be un-invested, I’m meaning that I want to be clear about my objectives and my responsibilities, and to honor those without forcing a particular agenda. I want to retain my current spirit of exploration, generosity towards others and naivete.

What I really hope is happening is that any temptation to stereotype any population is totally dead within me.

I am meeting the women of Sonagachi in their homes, at their collective Durbar, and in the streets. I am meeting their children, their loves, their madams, and their elders. I am drinking their tea. I am sitting with them and listening for glimpses of their stories and choices. The experience is both profoundly moving and totally mundane. Their stories are my stories too (maybe not in every particular, but the threads of our concerns comes from the same cloth).  More than anything, my experience working with the women of Sonagachi highlights how interwoven our lives are with our families, how we all seek to make the most of our careers, and how we try to be good partners and nourish relationships around us. If I tell you about my life, I will tell you how it has been filled with the joys of love and relationships; the pride of doing my work well; and how maybe one day I will speak of my children and look forward to my offspring’s marriages and educational accomplishments. My setbacks have had to do with health concerns, financial worries, and family responsibilities. I’ve dreamt of owning a bit of land and building a home, or starting a new business. All this and more is echoed by the women of Sonagachi. They are my family. We share Eve’s face(s).

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Argonauts/The Future

It’s been an intense period of “what next?” I’m trying to figure out what would be nice to see happen in 2013 and 2014. It’s requiring spreadsheets, some dreaming, some internal negotiations, conversations with multiple parties, overcoming fears, and letting some of my hopes run free (which tends to make me antsy).

Plus, this rummaging in my hope closet has been accompanied by a thick layer of mucus– three consecutive colds in a row, despite the constant hand washing.

Most days it feels like my heart is beating a zillion beats and my mind is a layer cake of different flavored thoughts, some pink, some grey, some sweet and fluffy, some grittier.

Often I’m just grateful I haven’t lost my hat or gloves in the course of the morning commute.

The good news is that I’m one of several Argonauts, all shipmates in the MSW program, pursuing our individual journeys, but sticking with each other, side by side. Our circumstances vary, but our targets vastly overlap: To become kinder and more thoughtful in our humanity. To connect with our selected communities. The skills we’re being taught are great. And the experience is, more often than not, surprising. Richer, simpler, more demanding, more generous, more layered than anything I could have anticipated. It’s nice to know that this is a place I want to be, both intellectually and emotionally.  My new professional community is pretty delightful. So I’m spoiled, I’m stretched thin and I’m in good company. 2013 Ahoy.

The Death of Procrastination

I have finally killed procrastination for good. Allow me to qualify this statement by adding some specificity.

I have finally mastered a student’s enemy: schoolwork-related procrastination. I’m still quite the procrastinator when it comes to several other important life arenas (cleaning, you know who you are and i curse you), but I feel that as a student, I’m making rapid headway.

Here’s my trick. I love being done with assignments ahead of schedule and not having to worry anymore far more than I love goofing off until the last possible second. I rather be calm. I rather feel a bit smug and have a cool summery beverage. I rather watch TV with lovely boyfriend in state of relaxed joy and indulgence.

It’s kind of amazing how different I am as an adult student compared to how I was as an undergrad. I think this is due to several factors. The most important factor being: I know exactly what I’m giving up in order to pursue my studies: All that time with friends and family. All that time at the movies. All those Center City Sips outings I’m not going on. All those story slams I can’t participate in. All the Free Library author events I can’t attend. They have a price. So I’m going to be as responsible to myself as I can be, and I’m going to try to reduce the stress on myself and all those I love as best I can by getting ahead whenever I can. Plus, it’s kind of fun. Yes, I also happen to be a total nerd.

The Appeal of Pessimism

I was sitting in a lecture last Thursday with the Dean of Penn’s School of Public Policy and Practice, and he was telling us about the US’s dismal record when it comes to child mortality due to abuse. The number of children dying from neglect and abuse has remained constant since the 1970s, despite the application of money, care, time, policy and staff.

These are the sorts of encouraging statistics and lectures one frequently encounters in social work school. The first year has been one of exceeding pessimism. Teachers and Deans are at great pains to describe the exact scope and hopelessness of the situation(s) and ask what exactly you think you can do as a lone practitioner in this big ugly world with its big ugly systems that replicate problems, stigma and power structures, or create new ones, while trying to alleviate suffering.

The Dean went on to explain in Kafkaesque detail, how bureaucracies, like all other malignant life forms, exist only to thrive and grow [not to solve problems efficiently].

{I’ll mention right now that he did wrap up the downbeat lecture on a note of possibility–that it takes coalitions and the right timing to instigate change, that the right policy at the right time can have a significant, positive effect, and he mentioned Social Security as changing the status of the elderly and dragging them out of poverty, and the GI Bill for creating the middle class in the 1950 and 1960s.}

But the reason I’m writing this post is to reflect on the lure, the allure, the temptation to listen to the litany of oft-repeated mistakes (the deadly mix of good intentions, poor policy design, restrictive benefit measures, and assorted gate-keeping and citizen shaming) and think of social ills as totally intractable. To think that having a miserable set of underclasses is part of the natural order, that no matter what we do, x% is going to be addicted, homeless, mentally ill, beaten and abused, illiterate etc.

It’s very tempting, after a couple centuries of good intentions and poor results, to think that nothing can be done. You have to be realistic.

well…

When I get in one of those dark corners of the mind, I give myself a stern talking to. I go back to home base. I question any offering of “norms”. This is the way it is and will remain is not a good enough answer. There wouldn’t be different national rates of, say, child mortality at birth, if there weren’t more or less effective approaches to dealing with pregnancy and child delivery. These national approaches to health, welfare and problem solving are societally and sociologically driven. There are structural forces at work. They have to be evaluated, confronted, mitigated, and ultimately dismantled.

I’m not calling for a revolution, I’m calling for an evidence based approach–nothing new my dear, luckily I’ve become a social worker in the age of empiricism and sound qualitative research methodologies–intelligent incrementalism, and the marriage of bottom up community work and top down policy work. There’s a lot of work to be done, but at least we have a pretty good idea of what has and has not worked to build upon.

The last five minutes

One of my greatest weaknesses is my chronic, professional grade, Impatience. It’s a family illness, I think. For me, the very hardest part of any journey is the last five minutes I have to spend on the plane, after we’ve landed and pulled up to the gate, while I wait for all the slow moving parties to deplane in the typical inefficient procession. By the time I get off the plane and out the gate, I basically run through the terminal to the nearest taxi, because the journey’s not done until I’m in my home snacking on something delicious.

I feel this exact way in the last five minute, or last 10% of any given effort, before I reach my goal.

This is my least favorite place to be emotionally and mentally–trapped in my labyrinth of eagerness/anxiety/excitement/nausea. I will name it The Corridor of Impatience. Unfortunately for my constitution, I spend a lot of time roaming the length and breadth of the Corridor.

And that’s where I am right now, in The Corridor of Impatience, until 6:45pm Thursday night, when my final paper of the semester will be due. By 9pm that night, I will be released back to civilian status until the second week in January. Oh how I long for the end of this particular journey. I’m the only one deplane-ing, but it’s still an inefficient procession, as I crawl through the final paper writing process. Wish me luck.

(P.S. Meanwhile, blogging is my release valve: forgive the narrow subject area this week.)

One Hour of Reading Explains Two Years of Writing

Tonight, I’ve been reading about (big words coming, so don’t freak out and abandon me here) Applied Symbolic Interactionism. It’s a social work theory formulated from 1890 to 1910 (stay with me…) and it freaking answers every question that drove the writing of my memoir. Okay, I’m exaggerating. It only answers or speaks to half the chapters. The chapter where I write in the second person, and my story about Frenchness and Identity–this theory can handle these questions. This theoretical framework specifically deals with multiple identities–internal and external, past and future, and across multiple clubs (e.g., France/America). Holy shit. That’s what my memoir is about: The imaginary, and the differences between the labels you inherit or are given and those you select for yourself. It’s deeply weird to have my narrative, story-based pieces explained in a structured theoretical framework. In one hour of reading what took me two years to write was explained. Can you guess how weird I feel right now?

Maybe I should be relieved that practitioners have been refining the theory for 120+ years. Does the existence of an explanatory theory nuke the need for a storytelling work? I don’t think so. But it’s a little bit like living in colonial Philadelphia with some back pain and being handed an x-ray of my spine. Several social work theorists can explain in elegant symbolic grammar what my brain has been toying with. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

It does confirm my decision to undertake these studies–I’m studying the right field which asks exactly the kinds of questions my brain likes to toy with. That’s a terrifyingly sexy turn of events. I have been enjoying the intellectual, moral and emotional stimulation of my schooling. But tonight I feel a little bit like Moses reading up on Exodus in the King James Bible.

I’m not sure what to with all this, or how it will impact my revision process, but I’m pretty freaking psyched and amazed, and with that, I’ll go read some more.

It’s hard to be witty when you’re all snotty

I’m engaged in hand to hand combat with a cold. The cold is currently pressing its fist against my face and forcing a cough and a lot of mouth breathing. Amidst my unfortunate nasal fluid releases, I have nonetheless read three academic articles, of varying interest. I’ve noticed that my feet are being forcefully plunged in cold theoretical waters, and I’m begrudging, but I guess social work will serve as my gateway to the arctic theoretical lands. It’s a one way journey. I fear that on the other end of this frozen analytical road, my language will become cluttered and ugly, and I will no longer be able to express myself simply. I fear that reverie and poetry will be eliminated for the sake of precision. Let’s hope not, dear readers. I guess this is the time to make a pledge to myself–I am definitely going to be forged, like molten steel, into a new psychic/intellectual and emotional shape by my training, but I also want to cling to my playfulness. I need to leave room for goofing off, exploration, inefficient uses of time, and my devotion to napping. Keeping these sacrosanct may help me try to protect my art side from my academy side.
Which reminds me, my readers have had my memoir manuscript for three weeks. Should I remind them that comments are soon due?

Buzzing Mind

I’ve been waking up and realizing that I’m mulling over the findings in my readings and how they are altering my world view–for example, the best predictors of decreasing poverty rates for African-Americans? Lifting out of poverty correlates to having more AA’s being employed by the government and their having greater political representation.(That’s tonight’s homework–email me if you want the reference.)

Or I wake up feeling deep guilt about not having written anything other than this blog, and ruminate over all the chapters I need to revisit and improve when I start the memoir revision process in a couple of weeks. Here’s My Big Problem: I don’t have a quick snappy way of explaining how/why I ended up writing my memoir, or what the memoir is about. I guess that’s Two Big Problems.

And with my new schedule I’m constantly negotiating my priorities. Right now, for example. I really wanted to nap between work and my evening lecture. But I decided I couldn’t nap until I finished the class reading, and then I decided that if I finished the reading I was allowed to blog (still no nap in sight.)

I realize these are trivial problems–it’s like complaining about being covered in whipped cream–so messy, so sticky, and so delicious. That’s really what’s happening. My life is overfull with wonderful developments, but I’m not used to all this stimulation and activity. It’s great, but it’s definitely an adjustment.

Mind blowing homework

Last night I did some homework and I’ve never had such an intense, reflective, and enthusiastic response to academic reading. I’ve landed on a planet of like-minded thinkers. My very own secret society. My brain is being stretched in good ways, really hard and really fast. Emerging notions:

1) I magically happened upon the right academic discipline–the books I’m reading are reflecting my values back to me, but in a really structured, theoretical, thoughtful academic way. It’s like there’s an alternate dimension where all my values and concerns about the structure of society are taken into account, and that dimension (for me) is called Social Work. The downside is that my homework makes me question the memoir I’ve just spent two years writing. I realize that in another three years, at the end of this training, I would write a totally different book. But maybe that’s something to look forward to–a new memoir about becoming a social worker.

2) I’m begin forced to ask some really big questions about my values and my core beliefs about American society and human life, and what I believe is the best way to go about helping society change. These questions can’t be asked without a measure of pragmatic skepticism. Caught between idealism, professionalism, and pragmatic skepticism, I feel really vulnerable. My new professional orientation speaks to a set of beliefs that will need to be examined and defended. I’m realizing my own mixed feelings. I want to help, but I am skeptical of the helping orientation because it has a such a spotty history.

3) I’ve stumbled into a conversation about theory. After a lifetime of avoiding theory, the time has come to immerse myself in theoretical mapping. I’m being pushed in my formal social work training to take theory into account and try to have a lively relationship with it, moving back and forth between theory and practice, letting each realm inform the other in an endless feedback loop.

These are the thoughts provoked after exactly 2.5 hours of class and 2.5 hours of homework. My mind is gonna get blown on a weekly basis. I guess I better get used to it.