Tag Archives: counseling

an open letter to my students

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An Open Letter to My Students on the Eve of the Orlando Shooting.

June 12, 2016

Dear Students,

You likely woke up today as I did: late. You may or may not have turned on the news as is my morning wake-up custom, coffee in hand and multiple snoozes later. Within moments it became clear that there was yet another mass shooting while we were sleeping. This morning’s shooting at a gay night club in Orlando. Over 100 dead and injured.

I remember thinking ‘My soon-to-be godson is to be baptized today. My responsibilities seem yet-again larger now.’

I’m late to the service by a few minutes this morning; I know you’re not surprised. I stood too long at the television in my bedroom, clenching the wooden ledge on top of the dresser left in the room by my great, great-aunts who were the unusual of their era; they were highly educated, remarkably fashionable, and unusually independent women from a time where that was not allowed. No doubt they were recipients of both celebration and judgment. The dresser left in the bedroom of this house they used which I now sleep in has new fingernail marks as of this morning, left accidentally as I should have been dressing for a baptismal service but was instead being washed again in the blood of others.

“I also remember this, and wish I did not,” as Didion once said. I remember that I was not surprised.

Yet another killing, this time the largest mass shooting in our states’ history and the largest terrorist attack on US soil since my freshmen year of college when I sat in a lecture hall of Blanchard at Wheaton and watched the towers fall before my eyes.

I remember this morning thinking that I was surprised that morning as an 18-year-old hopeful, but that I am not surprised now as a 32-year-old hopeful. And it is the hopefulness of my better wiring which has been wanting to talk to all of you all day long today, even though you’ve managed to sneak away from me for the summer. I’ve managed to talk to you in one of our random, side conversations all day long in my head regardless. Then I decided that I hope you might hear it.

Many of you value your faith deeply; I do as well. Because of this, those who believe differently from you are owed your love and honor. The faith you claim has told you so; the faith leaders you are bothered by have challenged this. Follow your faith.

Many of you think
public policy,
issues of social policy and social welfare,
wealth and poverty,
emails to your governors and senators and representatives
(unanswered as most of them go…which you will remember),
childhood development and influence,
family structure and complexity,
group norms and roles,
mob mentalities and social capacities,
and research formulas and findings
aren’t connected in any real way
to your deep desire to help those who are in need.

The crimes of today should remind you that these things are all connected.

The language and now law signed in by Governor Bill Haslam in Tennessee that allow therapists to legally hate and discriminate by refusing counseling to those of the LGBTQ community affected by today’s mass shooting is an issue of policy, welfare, wealth and poverty, legislators who listen and those who ignore (and are paid to do so, which you will remember), legislation and its [silent] funders, biological development and its influences, structure, complexity, norms, roles, mob mentalities and social capacities, research and its findings…

This language and this legislation and these legislators and these voices are the authors of the men and women who will come into your offices and onto your caseloads wounded, orphans of those killed by this morning’s violence, orphans of those who had parents who lived lives of silence or submission to a norm, or stood silently in the back of your sanctuaries on mornings like these as you went to church and thought it was a regular Sunday morning.

I felt the need all day long today, now pushing the clock to make it honest, to let you know that I expect the world of you.

I am pretty sure I have told you this. You will be the best.

I expect a whole other kind of world from you. I expect you to wake up on days like today with the news of the moment and the heart of a saint that is both willing to break the rules and willing to break the norms to dig your fingernails into the wooden ledge on top of the dresser and be late for something planned and appropriate because you decided you had to stand up and speak out for something possibly inappropriate because it puts all of our humanity at risk.

So in class, when I hound you and harass you and rap at you and sing at you and yell at you and take points from you and even when I feed you in an effort to buy you, please know this: I do all these things so that some day, some Sunday morning when someone is waking up and committing to go to church and pledge gratefully to be a godfather for a young man or young woman who has not yet learned to distrust the world…

I do all these things so that you will remember that it will never be okay for us to not be surprised at this kind of hateful news that greeted us this morning.

I’m counting on you.

djordan
Pine Tree Dr.

 

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human beings

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I would most definitely be lying if I said it happens every time. It most definitely does not happen every time. But when it’s not a season of dryness, it happens a lot. Today was one of those days. Tuesday was one of those days. Last Wednesday was one of those days.

There comes a split second in the middle of whatever I’m doing where I realize, somehow, that space

and time
and passion
and gut
and possibility
and awareness
and weight
and responsibility
and value
and importance crash in on one another in the middle of what would otherwise be a regular day or a regular moment at work, in work, while working.

Tuesday I stood in front of a group of students who I’ve slowly been getting to know, pointed partly to the screen behind me, projector light across half my face revealing an obvious typo in my otherwise regular presentation. My hands are in the air, my mind is on a person who once sat in my counseling office, and my words are coming out as an imperative I once made fun of a past professor for saying all the time.

“But you will be different. You will be better than everyone else. You will be the one person they come in contact with who looks at them and treats them like the actual human beings they are. These are human beings. You are working with humans. And you will be the best. You will be better than all of your coworkers. You will be excellent. They deserve it.”

Students are half-confused, half still waking up, half-engaged, and some hopefully teeming with the thought they could actually change the course of history in doing excellent work with human beings.

A few hours later, after grading quickly and pouring in caffeine, I’m standing in the same spot with a different group. I find myself reading through a poem about the people who have come before us and challenged everything we think we know about who deserves to be treated like a human being. And I almost lost my composure for a moment.

And then last Wednesday, looking people in the face and listening to them tell me about their perseverance and their hopefulness when everything tells them there’s no reason to keep fighting, I realize I’m in some kind of sacred space where humanity crashes into reality and brings clarity for a split second before exploding back into chaos and confusion once again.

And then today.

Listening to a man the same age and race and history as my grandfathers, were they still speaking wisdom over me in the flesh, saying with tears in his eyes and a knot in his throat,

“Brotherhood & sisterhood
among people of all kinds
is not so wild and crazy a dream
as the people who
profit from postponing it
would have you believe.” B. Zellner

He was once in the KKK, as was his pastor father. But he joined the freedom riders and was pulled bleeding across the street with his black brothers and sisters, many of whom were killed.

And listening to him tell his story and say these words in front of me as I watch my students sit beside and around me, with lives of social work and beloved-community bringing and rule-breaking completely ahead of them

And then tonight

Driving home from sitting with a friend at another board meeting where numbers and spreadsheets and arguments and committee reports are ultimately about people getting the care and support and dignity they deserve because they are human beings.

It’s then that something clicks and says it’s worth being so tired and so ready for bed if it means that people are treated like the human beings they actually are. It must be. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s so elusive.

And it doesn’t happen every day, every time, every meeting.

But it happens just enough to remind me that there are no other actual options but to wade into these kinds of waters and fight these kinds of fights

And hope that the students and the clients and the colleagues and the men who marched all those years ago will keep doing the same…

on days when it happens

but mostly on days when it doesn’t

djordan
Pine Tree

 

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drowning in forgetfulness

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I met with two teenage guys this afternoon for therapy. I spent my time reminding them of all the progress they’ve seen against all the odds that were stacked against them, the odds they had recounted in previous sessions, the bad odds I had not tried to talk them out of because I wasn’t sure enough that they were going to come true.

And yet these two young men actually enacted these bad odds not coming true. They made choices and held out hope long enough that a different kind of future happened against all the odds, really. Over and over again.

But they’ve already forgotten. They are now in the middle of the next layer of stacked-against-them-odds and they don’t remember that they felt as impossibly positioned not so long ago. And they don’t remember that not so long ago they courageously chose to push into something they didn’t know and found themselves on the other side of something that seemed one-sided.

And so I find myself working to ask questions that remind them. And as always when any of us ask good questions of others, we hear ourselves asking good questions that we ourselves must answer.

More time passes in a day and we realize that sometimes we wake up in the middle of the night with worry and fear, drowning in forgetfulness, and we are overcome with anxiety and sorrow. And we find ourselves praying because someone once said we should pray when we wake up and can’t sleep in those dark hours of the night/morning.

So we pray that God will show us how to listen, and that we can learn what it actually means to love our awkwardness juxtapositioned to the honesty of others. And we ask for sleep knowing, owning for one damn time, that we aren’t orchestrating all of this and we need some help to be able to find any peace at all, waking or sleeping.

And we might finally catch some rest before the sun rises, or we might not.

But it doesn’t matter either way, because we realize that we are all learning from each other, and we need the people around us to remind us that we are capable of and intentioned for more than we could ever think to ask or imagine.  And though we often drown in our own forgetfulness, a sleepless night that reminds us to ask for eyes to see and ears to hear might just be what we need to remember that he is making all things new and he is the God of doing things against all the odds.

Even in the middle of a sleepless night.

djordan
Pine Tree Dr.

 

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digging for the possible

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On days where I’m ready to practice my craft, and I’ve slept long enough and I’m not trying to finish other things in my head while pretending to listen to someone else, I find myself digging for the possible with the clients who sit and speak and hurt and wonder in my office.

On days where I’m not ready to practice the craft, or on days where I forget it is actually a craft to be practiced, or on days where I’m so absorbed in my own speaking and hurting and wondering…it’s on those kinds of days where I don’t dig for the possible, but rather restate the obvious. My laziness or distraction pushes me to remind others of their own faults, hurts, weaknesses, and burning realities that they––no doubt––know and feel and ultimately honor much more than I ever could.

But on the days where I’m tuned in, dialed up, hunkered down, it becomes magical. To be a voice given some privilege in a room, I get to ask the questions that  uncover the great strength and fortitude and creativity and resilience of the people sitting in my office, telling stories more honest than I’ve every dared to tell.

And as we dig through the rubble for the possibilities of their futures, I become immediately honored and terrified that what might happen in the room depends to a certain extent on the state in which I show up to work.

And with the stakes so high, if stakes are viewed as gifts, to whom much is given much is required.

djordan
Pine Tree

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to drop the number

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Based on the first few minutes, it seemed like Schizophrenia joined my client during our initial session. I had already been told that she wasn’t comfortable having the door to the office closed, that she stared extra carefully at everything in the room, and that “something isn’t quite right.”

I find her across the parking lot smoking a cigarette during the few minutes between when she had been seen for initial paperwork, and when I called for her to come in for an initial assessment and conversation. Perhaps, I thought as I walked slowly across the parking lot working hard to come across safely and respectfully, she gets anxious in waiting rooms with many other people, so a cigarette provides a space of solace while waiting for whoever has more power than her in the next meeting she will sit through.

My name’s Donald, and if it’s okay with you, I’m privileged to be the clinician who gets to talk to you today.

Nod. Cigarette thrown in the bushes. Handshake. Steady stare into my eyes.

“Nice to meet you, Sir.”

Call me Donald.

We get into my office, and after pleasantries and explanations, she is gracious enough to sit through an hour of the kinds of personal questions I would walk out on were someone else to meet me and begin asking me within a few minutes.

Pages after pages of computer-driven questions that are shaped in the form of inquiries about the client but ultimately are answering questions for insurance companies, attorneys, liability assessment tools, and commissioners from all kinds of offices were completed.

“How are we doing so far? Is this okay for you? Are these questions bothering you? Are you okay still being here?”

Nod. Steady stare into my eyes.

We finished all the initial questions.
Mid forties now, and in and out of prison since the age of 18.
Out of lockup for six months, and scared to death that she will get sent back.
Sexually and physically abused by family members around the age of six and seven.
At the mercy now of probation officers, poorly-run treatment center directors, and the goodwill of others, like me, who she’s been told she has to talk to before she can be “better.”

I go through my spiel that has become quite common, and more true each time I say it, about the respect I have for women and men who make it through prison and work their damnedest to stay out of prison.

“I need to be free. I can’t go back. To go back is to die, and I don’t want to die.”

And after the entire conversation, it’s her turn to sign the freaky little plastic pad with the awkward little plastic pen that shows up on the computer as a weird version of a signature.

One more blow to whatever identity she has left to fight for.

I watch the screen as she watches the electronic signature pad. She writes her last name, the first letter of her first, and then a five digit number.

“What’s that number?”

That’s my number. That’s who I am. It has to be with my signature.

Inmate number, now stuck to a signature.

I looked her in the eyes, shook her hand, and stared longer than feels normal.

“When we are done meeting, my hope for you is that you don’t think to sign that inmate number to your name anymore.”

“Why’s that? It’s my number.”

Our work in the days ahead will be an uphill climb that deals with responsibility and childhood abuse and complex trauma and depression and anxiety and agoraphobia. But if I have any respect for her, our work will include a deep and thick reminder that she is not identified and will not leave her mark in ways that reflect her inmate number.

If she is capable of more that I can think or imagine, and more than she can think or imagine, than she is, right now whether she agrees to it or not, more than a number.

She has a name. And that’s that.
And to find her true name, we have to learn to drop the number.

djordan
Pine Tree Dr.

Image from this article on Slate.com: “Trapped: The Mentally Ill in Prison.”

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when it’s worth saying

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She held her hands over her mouth
most of the time she talked,
which I’ve been trained to know means
she’s not sure about what she’s saying
and she isn’t sure it’s worth someone else hearing

I find out soon enough
that her pastor tells her she can’t get divorced
even after she knows she’s gotten
an STD from him
a reputation from him
a history and an internalized notion of not being enough for him

but she can’t get divorced from him
so my only hope
and maybe her only hope is
to help her feel strong enough
to know she is strong enough
to stand up to him and maybe
to stand up to her pastor

to say that she thinks
just maybe
even though all of her life has suggested otherwise
that she is worth standing up for herself
and that she is worth having someone else stand up for her. ‘

poverty and power and religion and resources
blur the lines between
what God desires for his people
and what his people end up living through.

and it is, in fact, his people who are called
to put up a fight.
And we, then, cover our mouths as well
because we aren’t sure about what we’re saying
and if it’s worth someone else hearing.

djordan
Summar Dr.

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what are we doing?

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In the middle of multiple meetings lately, either starting with coffee because it is far too early or in the morning, or starting with coffee because it is far too late in the evening, I find myself in the middle of multiple meetings.

There are papers and computers and skyped-in video faces and clicking pens and reshuffled papers and dogs under the table because that’s the way it works when we are meeting whenever and wherever we can.

And I find myself often in these meetings wondering what in the world I have gotten myself into. I will either have a dining room filled with two bodies and one skyped-in face arguing and agreeing and praying our way through to a more hopeful and sustainable work in another country with real people with real skills and dreams and aspirations, or I will find myself in a dining room looking across a kitchen, a living room and a den filled with students and adults who are learning what it means to follow Christ into their own city. We talk about what truama-informed care looks like, what it means to view others through a lens of strengths instead of through a lens of shortcomings, and what we are actually doing when we are serving in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods a few miles from my home.

And I look at both of these groups, all people I am falling deeply in love with and flying highly in respect with, and wonder what in the world we are doing. Who let us be responsible for these tasks, and who knows we are learning as we go? I often feel as though I snuck into a grown up world, and the bouncers didn’t catch me, the Dean’s didn’t notice, and the bosses didn’t pay attention before putting me in these positions.

So knowing that I am leaning into the work at the same time as I am learning it, I find myself most amazed at what God insists on doing through my own ignorance, unpreparedness, and incompetence. We take seriously the discipline of learning and asking and pushing and working, but the generosity of God is the only thing which actually moves us from point A to point B.

And so we keep moving. From dining room table to living room floor, we lean into whatever it means to live out the kingdom of God in León or in Jackson or in wherever in God’s name we end up living something out. We pray we do it well knowing all the while that we are quite a mess.

I went to the grocery store last week in my pajamas and saw three people I know, but not well enough to make a joke about being in my pajamas. I went to a service with church two weeks ago and in a rush had only trimmed half of my beard.

I am what I am, and we are what we are, and while we don’t know exactly what we’re doing, we are doing what we know to do and working to do it better, more effectively, more educatedly, more honestly, more humanly day by day. We are reading and studying and listening and praying our tails off, but we have to move now. It’s worth filling up dining room tables and living room floors for, I would say. It is in breaking bread and coming together that God let’s us know what is next.

We don’t know what we are doing, but he does. And as long as we are diligently working to learn and seek and know more about what we’re doing, he makes the kingdom come. We merely jump in.

djordan
Pine Tree

Donald is privileged to work with a ridiculously awesome staff at Area Relief Ministries, a local non-profit in Jackson, Tennessee working to alleviate suffering, promote dignity and foster hope in a multitude of ways. He also serves on the Board of Directors with three other very talented and influential individuals for El Ayudante, Nicaragua who seeks to work with the Nicaraguan people to transform the nation. These meeting often end up happening in Donald’s living room and dining room, which make living at Pine Tree worthwhile in and of themselves. Check out Area Relief Ministries and El Ayudante | Nicaragua online.

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the illusion of the one thing

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Privileged, I sat and listened to seven different people today, varying in ages and colors and backgrounds and struggles, all sharing the clouds in which they find themselves. I saw myself in them today, all of us looking for the one way of thinking about it or labeling it or diagnosing it that would set them, set me, set all of us free. If that one thing was found, they could get the right medicine or the right outlook or take the right action or make the right choice to fix it all.

“Fixing it all” is of course the goal they hurried in with, and the goal I hurry in most places with. It is, of course, the goal that all of us most often run into the cloudy situations with. Tell me the one thing that will fix all of this.

We scramble and wrestle and our ears turn red and our voices raise and tears fall and our heart rate takes off. Everything in us is trying to churn together to locate, isolate and intervene on that one thing.

Our inevitable not finding it leads to our heartbrokenness, growing frustration and often to our hopelessness.
And there is in the places where we sit quietly, listening to the clock tick, watching the moth walk across the window, feeling that part of our sock that isn’t fitting right, we begin to let go the illusion of the one thing. And we take a breath, and we see that in the middle of the cloudy struggle, there is still a ticking clock. Still across the window a walking moth, still a tangled sock buried deep down in our boot.

And in those moments, we realize the cloudy struggle isn’t all that is true. And there, our hope begins.

djordan
Pine Tree

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dinner at the coffee table

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I don’t know why it has all come together in my brain this way.

Growing up, I remember being furious that this rule was put in place, even in middle and high school, that I MUST be present at the dinner table at least three or four nights a week. If I went out after that, that was one thing. If I ate or not was another thing, but my presence at the dinner table was required three or four nights a week. (I don’t remember which, so obviously it wasn’t as traumatic as I would like to pretend.)

As with many things I now reflect back on from growing up, I hated this rule at the time, and yet now I wouldn’t trade anything for it.

And a few nights ago, I joined some incredible friends from present day around their coffee table for dinner. At our home growing up, when I was huffing and puffing about having to be home for dinner around a table, we would every now and then sit around the coffee table, the same one I now have in my den, and eat pizza and watch TV together. I remember being angry that my parents could guess what was going to happen on the TV show, and I was likely more angry about this because I wanted to be anywhere but there at the moment.

But a few nights go, legs crossed over pillows on the floor, eating while sitting around their coffee table, I found myself in a kind of time freeze. The four year old daughter of my friends was pretending to make meals or be a drummer with her metal bowls and plastic whisks, and we were eating sushi with chopsticks out of styrofoam sakura to-go boxes.

There was much that reminded me, though, of growing up. The space for imagination and casualness, and play and informality. The insistence of good food even though it was spread out across a coffee table reminded me of how much has changed, and how little has changed at the same time.

And today, I’m in a counseling session with a family who can’t pay the bills so they share a home with another family. Four parents, five children, three minimum wage jobs, exponential stress. They were sitting in my office, a mom and dad, completely undone by the situation, and parenting skills to reflect the same. As they were talking, I found myself returning to the living room coffee table a few nights ago with incredible friends learning to be good parents, a four year old playing kitchen, and myself wondering how things will be remembered ten years later.

For all of us.

And most of all, I found myself glad that someone made me sit down for dinner three or four nights a week, no matter how unbelievable and unrealistic a request it seemed at the time.

djordan
Pine Tree

 

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