Category Archives: fate

A Helper’s FIRE

I’ve talked with people who after many years in a particular kind of work feel unsettled as if they are not doing the kind of work that fulfills their passion. Others I’ve had conversations with have changed the kind of work they do many times. They say that they get restless after the bloom of doing something different begins to fade.

Like those I’ve spoken with who wonder if there is something that they should be doing rather than what they are doing with their lives, I’ve had these thoughts. But for me, these thoughts have been fleeting. During my career journey, I took many of the assessments that purport to help career searchers begin to narrow their focus. Interpretations of my various assessment results showed a consistency in that whatever I chose for a career, I would be a “helper.”

I defined being a helper as someone who would provide support to others in reaching their goals and human potential. The question for me was how this might be realized in a specific career. Coming of age in the 1960s, I didn’t believe that the universe of options was open to me. Going into the medical field was my teenage dream. However, the reality of my financial situation made that dream unrealistic as a goal.

Being a teacher was one way that I could become a helper. However, it was a choice for which I settled rather than one for which I had a strong inclination. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was during these years that I thought I was settling that I found my passion. Teaching helped me realize that young people found it easy to relate to me and sought my counsel beyond the classroom. During these one-to-one sessions with students, I learned that many of them worked to the level that was expected of them rather than to the level of what they were capable of doing. They had more potential than they realized. Helping these students see beyond their current circumscribed existence brought me joy.

My sense of satisfaction in these relationships with students and their positive response to me confirmed for me that I was in the right place. Attaining a degree in counseling, I was prepared to be a helper. I found real congruence between who I imagined myself to be and who I could be in my career as a mental health and career counselor.

Even at this early stage of my journey, my touchstones of FIRE were part of my inner process:

I accepted the situation that I was in (fate).

I believed that I would be led to the right outcome (faith).

I focused on living a life infused with integrity.

I took initiative to get the required credentials to do what I wanted to do.

I was constantly reflecting on circumstances in a manner that I could glean lessons from my experiences.

I always tried to respect those with whom I interacted regardless of age and position.

I applied energy to achieve career goals and to carry out my responsibilities as a spouse and parent.  

I freely expressed empathy for others, and I allowed myself empathy when it seemed that I had lost my way.

My hopeful wish for young professionals is that you will find the path that will lead you to your place of passion and fulfillment in your professional and personal life.

“There Is No Time!”

Depressed because my best friend was not returning to college with me. Broken-hearted after finally realizing that my boyfriend was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Being alone on a train was the best place for me to be after being devastated by these changes in my life that were beyond my control.

The only thing left for me to do was to feel sorry for myself and pray. I prayed for a true friend and companion who would be someone I would love and someone who would love me.

As the train slowed, I saw a guy in faded jeans and gym shoes. When the train stopped, I was looking straight at Charles William Dungy, Jr. When he took the seat next to me, we had our first real conversation.

Arriving a few days before classes started, there was only one place to get something to eat near campus. We were both famished. Looking at the menu, we saw that the prices for just about everything exceeded what money we had. We both worked on campus and wouldn’t have any money until that first check of the quarter arrived. We decided to pool our money and get what we really wanted. We shared a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich and swore it was the best sandwich we’d ever had.

That was the beginning. Fifty-five years later I can say without reservation that Charles William Dungy, Jr. is the best thing that ever happened to me. Fate looked upon me with favor when he came into my life.

He has been gone three years this past February and this is the first time I’ve been able to allow myself to recall and write about the person he was. Until now, I only allowed sneak peeks of who he was, and I fed on comments others made about him. A couple of weeks ago, a colleague from many years ago and I reconnected. In expressing her condolences to me she said that she remembered Charles as distinguished, charming, and a wonderful host. She said that she would always remember a comment that a mutual acquaintance made about him—that he was easy on the eyes.

I used the condolence comments of my dear friend, Caryn, for his Obituary. In remembering  him, she referenced the emptiness formerly filled by his warmth, gentleness, keen intellect, wide-ranging interests and deep devotion to his family.

There is no doubt that he was blessed with good looks, charm, impeccable taste, enormous intelligence, and boundless curiosity and interests. I used to call him Mr. Smithson because his interests were as many and as varied as those housed in the Smithsonian.

His varied interests may make some think that he was a dilettante. He was not. He just didn’t have the time to go as deeply as he would like to go in his many areas of interests. He needed many more lifetimes to satisfy his need to know and desire for experiences.

When he would get frustrated about time pressures, we’d often say, “There is no time!” We picked this expression up after watching the film Killer Angels regarding the Civil War. This was supposedly said by General Robert E. Lee when talking strategy for attacks at Gettysburg just before the war ended.

Charles was the most intelligent person I had ever met. When the rest of us were just learning what a computer was, his job at the university was running data for professors’ research projects. He was indispensable to them at that time as he later was indispensable to our family. He majored in math, physics, and engineering. He also attained an MBA. These degrees were just stops along the way for his prodigious mind.

We will always love him and feel indebted to him for putting his interests in a small pouch that he would only dip into every now and then because he wanted to support me in my career, and he wanted to hoist our son up so he could strive to reach his unlimited potential. This beautiful and talented man drew his ambition small and bent his will to support us.

It grieves me when I think that he didn’t have as much time as he needed to explore the wonder of everything that interested him. I will always love him, miss him, and respect him for the man he was.

1951-1952

I called the cab stand and Miss Henrietta, the operator, answered saying, “Orange Mound Cab Stand.” As always, without giving a name, I asked, “Is my Daddy there?” I heard her yell, “James, your baby is on the phone!” When Daddy came to the phone, he asked, “Are you alright? Where y’all at?”

I was seven years old going on eight, and my little brother was one going on two. Reflecting on what happened in 1951 and 1952, it’s as if the ring of the call I made was a bell tolling for the demise of our fragile family. Except for during the first months of my life when James rented a room in a boarding house to which he could bring Lottie Mae shortly after I was born in 1944, it was during 1951 and 1952 that we lived together as a family.

It wasn’t long before we were once again living with our mother’s parents on Hollywood Street. Sometime before my eighth birthday in 1952, our mother’s father was called to Chicago to help take care of his gravely ill brother. After being in Chicago for a short while, he sent for our grandmother to join him.

Because our mother, Muhdear, also was gravely ill with what had been diagnosed as terminal, our grandmother insisted that Muhdear, my brother, and I go to Chicago with her. Muhdear did not tell our Daddy that she was leaving Memphis and taking us with her. She was too sick to remain on her own with us in Memphis, and she knew that Daddy would never allow her to take us to Chicago. He didn’t know where we were until he received that fateful call from me.  

 In Chicago, my grandparents were able to rent what was called an attic “apartment,” in the same building where our grandfather’s sick brother lived. The apartment was one long room under the eaves with enough space for a small bathroom, a stove, and refrigerator. The eating table was at the foot of the bed, the only space available.  

Leaving her baby boy with her parents in the “apartment,” Muhdear and I were essentially homeless, sleeping on couches and makeshift floor pallets at the homes of various cousins, aunts, and uncles. During the day, Muhdear sometimes took me with her while she looked for work.

Life in Chicago made me long to go back to Memphis. Because our condition was so bad and she was so sick, I frequently asked Muhdear if I could call Daddy to come get us. Years later, when I asked what made her change her mind to allow me to call our Daddy that day, this is what she told me:

Snow was deep and the street cars would not wait for you to get on with children.  One day, I got up on the streetcar and paid my seven cents. When I looked around, you were still on the platform. This really scared me, and I began to wonder if I could take care of my children in my condition. I knew that if anything happened to you all, I would rather be dead, and I knew if anything happened to Rabbit’s (James’) children, he would kill me because I left him and took you all with me.  

So, when Daddy arrived to take us back to Memphis, she got in the car for the sake of her children to make the risky but necessary trip back to Memphis.

In Spite of It All

If you were asked to describe yourself—regardless of the circumstances or situations—as generally optimistic or pessimistic, what would be your honest assessment? Would your personal emoji be the upturned or downturned smile? When you’re shown the glass with water, is it half full or half empty?

Asked if she was an optimist, Stacey Abrams, responded, “No I’m an amelliorist which is something I made up. I believe that the glass is half full. It’s just probably poisoned. And so my job is always to be on the hunt for the antidote” (“The Story Behind Stacey Abrams’s Fiction Career,” The Atlantic, June 2021).

The idea of being an amelliorist has stuck with me. Would an amelliorist be…

  • one who, in spite of having been betrayed, dares to trust again?
  • one who has seen and experienced injustice and in spite of it continues to fight for justice?
  • one who sees that nothing has changed and in spite of it continues to hope that things will change?
  • one who exhibits a spiritual strength that inspires and unites in spite of the emotional toll?
  • one who, in spite of having one’s own hopes dashed, shares a sense of hopefulness with and for others?
  • one who finds something to learn in spite of the worst of circumstances?

Am I an amelliorist? The mnemonic FIRE that defines my life’s values begins with two words for the letter “F.” Faith and Fate.

Fate has caused me to experience situations that I would rather have avoided, and in spite of it, I have had faith that I will get to the other side of whatever uncomfortable circumstance I’m currently experiencing. Fate makes me understand that life is a crapshoot; sometimes I get the poisoned water but, through my faith, magical thinking, or divine intervention, I’m not thirsty and don’t have to drink the poisoned water. 

Or fate has found me in a situation where quenching my thirst with this particular half glass of water is my only option for survival. In spite of the threat of death, I drink the poisoned water and because of my faith, the poison has no negative effect on me.

As one calendar year ends and another begins for optimists and pessimists (and amelliorists) alike, perhaps this is the optimum time to be mindful of our individual and collective efforts to search for a synthesis of our optimistic and pessimistic selves in order to discover and maintain the equilibrium necessary for us to find meaning and purpose in our lives in spite of external circumstances over which we have no control.

The Pain and Pride of Coming Through Hardship

One fact that we can all agree on is that we are in an economic and financial downturn with Depression-level unemployment rates triggered by the pandemic. In addition to the current hardships for so many, a consequence of this experience will be how it changes the way many will view their relationship with money now and on into the future. For example, it’s not hard to imagine that your future children or grandchildren will rationalize your excessive frugalness as a result of your experience during this time.

My mother told me many stories about how hard it was for her and her parents during the Great Depression. I remember one being especially sad. My mother was five years old in 1929 – a year often associated with the Great Depression – and my grandparents were a struggling young couple.

They had been sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta before the Depression and had done well enough to move from the farm to the city of Clarksdale. Their relatives had done well in finding jobs in the city and my mother’s parents had high hopes that they would also find jobs. They were eager to put farm work behind them.

Their plan was to live with a relative until they could, so to speak, get on their feet. Shortly after their move to Clarksdale, the depths of the Depression were being felt by the entire country and jobs that black people used to be able to get were now occupied by white people. When my grandfather couldn’t even get a job with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), he “pulled cotton” to make just enough money to buy food.

When the weather became too cold to pull cotton, my grandfather became resigned to the fact that he would have to find a farm where he could once again share crop. My mother said it was the “dead of winter” and they set out for the countryside walking and carrying all their belongings.

After knocking on a lot of doors, they found an old lady who was living alone. She welcomed them to move in with her. Shortly after moving in with the old lady, my grandfather became ill. He had always been asthmatic, but this illness was more severe than asthma alone. They were way out of town where there were no doctors and even if there were a doctor near, they had no money with which to pay.

My mother said that my grandmother tried everything she could to try to get my grandfather’s fever down and help him breathe. Indelible in my mother’s mind is what my grandmother did: She made a salve of Sloan’s liniment and Vick’s salve and rubbed it all over his chest, and then she covered his chest with a flannel cloth. She made a tea out of cow chips and the liniment and held him up so he could drink it while it was very hot. Then she gave him some pills called Red Devils.

While my grandfather was sick, the family ran completely out of food. The old lady they moved in with told them that there was a well-to-do farmer down the way who might help. My mother and grandmother went to the farmer for help, telling him about my grandfather’s illness and how, as a consequence, they had no food. The farmer gave them some food and told them that there was a corn field behind where he was living. The people who had planted the corn had moved away and did not gather it before winter. The farmer said they were welcome to gather all the corn they wanted and, if they shucked it and brought it back to him, he would take it to the mill and exchange it for food and other things they needed.

After wrapping their feet in grass sacks for extra protection, my mother, about six years old now, braved the snow and ice with my grandmother to return to the farm where the corn had not been harvested. They pulled enough corn to fill a large cotton sack that was so heavy that they had to drag it back to the house. My mother remembered that when they got back to the house freezing, she helped her mother lay the ears of corn on the floor in front of the fire so they could dry. After the corn dried out, they shucked it, put the ears in the big sack and took it to the farmer before filling the sack again with as many ears of corn as they could drag.

My mother said they felt lucky to have access to the corn and to be favored enough that the farmer would take the corn to the mill because some people were literally starving. The old lady with whom they were living had grown some turnip greens and, when she was ready to cook them, she had no lard. Ever resourceful when desperate times called for desperate measures, she used Blue Seal Vaseline as a substitute. My mother told me that they declined the greens cooked with Vaseline, but her mother did accept the turnip roots.

When my mother would tell me this anecdote about how tough times were, I could see in her face and hear in her voice both pain and pride. Pain in recalling the struggles so many people suffered then and the following many lean decades they endured after the Great Depression was “officially over.” Pride at the fact that she and her family had come through these times, and, in her mind, the better for it because their survival was proof of their faith and resilience.

If there is one common piece of advice survivors of the Great Depression might recommend, it is to always seek the long view when disruptions appear catastrophic in the microscopic lens of the moment lest we overinterpret the future impact of our experience and accept a destiny not worthy of our potential.

Change: From the Ordinary to the Catastrophic

swaying sunflowers

It’s a Monday morning and a great day to begin a new exercise routine. After an hour-and-a-half of stretching and strength-building at home, I’m ready for a nice walk. I feel great and decide to take a new route. Stretched out in front of me on a slight incline is a new sidewalk flanked by small delicate sunflowers swaying in the breeze. As I pass others, some walking their dogs, either I or they walk into the street in order to increase the space between us. After an exhilarating experience, I return home feeling revived by the fresh air and sunshine. All is right in my world.

As I put my foot on the first step to go to my front door, I spontaneously scream in pain and grab the handrail as my knee buckles under me. With my eyes tightly shut, I just hang there, moaning in pain and wondering what happened.

This comparatively ordinary moment comes to mind when I read how some of the people affected by COVID-19 describe change:

“So much has changed so quickly . . .”

“Everything has changed in a manner of minutes—seconds”

“. . . changes so sudden that there is no time to adapt”

When life changes in an instant, we can’t consciously think about dichotomous options of fighting to keep things as they were or adapting to the change. What we do usually just evolves as we’re forced to acquiesce to the conditions in which we find ourselves.

We wait.

We adapt.

We hope.

Up close and personal…

I’m remembering previous times when everyone around me was frightened, but the scary thing was not up close and personal.

  • During the first years of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, when we would hear the piercing siren sound, our teachers would direct us to quickly scramble under our tiny desks and to cover our head with our hands.
  • When the rain became an electrical storm, our teachers would urge us to move quickly and quietly into the cloak room where our little coats were hanging on low hooks. I remember covering my face with whatever coat I was near.
  • When I was at home and there was loud thunder and crackling lightning, my grandfather would turn out all of the lights, cover the mirrors, and tell us to be very quiet.

These were scary times, but they were not up close and personal.

It was the second month of my first semester in college and my roommate and I lay on our narrow beds facing one another listening to the radio and talking about what might happen because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Would we die any moment because of what sounded like an impending nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union? We were frightened, but this was not up close and personal.

In October 2002, the “DC Sniper” randomly killed ten people and wounded four. Whether going to the grocery store, pumping gas, or walking on the sidewalk, there was fear that one could be gunned down any time without provocation or warning. I recall being so frightened that I actually did walk a zig zagging path down the sidewalk in DC in order to make it more difficult for the sniper to get a good shot. It looked crazy but it was a suggestion on how one might stay alive. Despite the generalized fear, this was not up close and personal.

Today, COVID-19 – or the Coronavirus – is up close and personal. The virus is likely the most impactful phenomenon that the people of the world have experienced, and its historic significance cannot be overstated. All of our lives are being touched in one way or another by the circumstances this pandemic has caused.

Because this pandemic is up close and personal, it is my hope that it will stimulate more compassion and selflessness when the first instinct might be something else.

 

 

What’s your personal motto?

On February 25, 2020, CBS hosted Democratic presidential candidates in South Carolina for the final debate before Super Tuesday. For the last question, the candidates were asked to share what they thought was the biggest misconception about them and their personal motto. I was most interested in their personal motto:

  • Tom Steyer writes a cross on his hand each day to remind himself to tell the truth and to do what’s right, no matter what.
  • Amy Klobuchar grounds herself by remembering that politics is about improving lives.
  • Joe Biden’s motto is, “When you get knocked down, get up, and everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity no matter what or who they are.”
  • Bernie Sanders referenced Nelson Mandela for his motto, “Everything is impossible until it happens.”
  • Elizabeth Warren looks to Matthew 25 for her motto—actions done for the “least of these” have been done unto Jesus.
  • Pete Buttigieg also used a biblical reference, seeking to “live by the teachings that say if you would be a leader, you must first be a servant.”

I don’t know whether having a personal motto or a theme one uses to remain personally grounded is a “thing” or not, but the question to the presidential candidates made me think about what my personal motto might be.

Some years ago, when I was up in the mountains of Colorado, I had an epiphany that there was a pattern to my thinking and behavior that could be codified into an anagram that I could easily recall when I needed something to hold on to in order to keep from falling off the tightrope that I often found myself on.

I easily recall my personal motto with the anagram FIRE. While I have changed some of the descriptors to the anagram on occasion, two ideas represented by each letter of the anagram remain constant:

F is for fate and faith

Whether the situation is positive or negative, fate is hard for me to reckon with because my first reaction is to use logic to understand the why and the what of the unexpected circumstances in which I find myself. When I can’t make the connection between cause and effect, I think about life as a crap shoot – sometimes we win and sometimes we don’t. On the occasions when fate appears to be negative, I go to the other concept for the “F” in my anagram.

I rely heavily on faith. Because I have so much evidence to support my belief that it has been faith that has kept me in the game, this is not an empty promise or self-righteous bromide for me. Recalling that I have successfully come through other situations that I thought were impossible, and knowing that I will eventually be whole again, is what faith is to me.

I is for initiative and integrity

Initiative has two interconnected meanings for me: it both spurs me to get up and do something and pushes me to make something different, to innovate. Initiative keeps me thinking and creating. While I’ve sometimes thought life and work would be so much easier if I could just leave things as they are and go with the flow, I’ve always wanted to make something better or add something more. More often than not, my initiative / innovation has been on target and helpful. On the occasions when the vision of what could be was not realized, the disappointment never stopped me from having the desire to invent another way to move forward.

In my anagram, the letter “I” also reminds me that integrity is an important value that I want to include in all that I do. I live this value by doing my very best to do what I say I’m going to do, even if it might be as insignificant as being on time for an appointment. My goal is to always “walk the talk.”

R is for reflection and respect

As the theme song from the 1980s and 1990s sitcom “The Golden Girls” goes, reflection is “a pal and confidant.” If anyone is with me for any period of time, that person knows that I get a lot out of reflecting on what has happened and what I might learn from experience. What I write in my blogs are products of my reflections.

The other thought that “R” helps me recall is respect. Reflection and respect are often connected because my reflections are usually about interactions with people and what my role was in the experience. Did I say or do all I could to demonstrate that I had respect for the other person? Was I able to think of our communicative relationship as “I-thou”?

E is for empathy and energy

Empathy comes naturally to some people. I can recall crying as a child just because another child cried. My folks said that when I did this, I was just too sensitive. In addition to a predisposition to feel with others, as a professional counselor, I have a lot of practice in expressing empathy as a team member in work situations. I learned that it was not okay to restrict my empathy for peers and a chosen few. In order to accomplish the goals of the workplace, empathy and understanding had to be a commodity everyone could share.

I call on energy to fuel my initiatives because they are usually a reaction to inertia and resistance to change. In order to get results, one has to be able to press on. I call upon energy, then, when I don’t want to continue in the fight, when I don’t care about the brass ring and just want to settle. I call on energy when I fall down literally and figuratively and have to tell myself as Hercules Mulligan says in the play Hamilton, “When you knock me down, I get the f*** up again!”

Having been encouraged to share my personal motto, I’m changing the title of my blog to “The FIRE This Time” – an adaptation of James Baldwin’s title “The Fire Next Time” – to allow me to expand the breadth of my subject matter and to connect to my personal motto anagram when appropriate.

Writing satisfies a personal yearning, and I’m grateful for the outlet this blog provides. I share my thoughts and experiences because I’ve learned so much about myself from reading about the experiences of others in memoirs, essays, and personal stories.

The last thing I want to do is to come across as if I think I have the answers, or that my experiences give me the wisdom to know how others should be or what others should do with their life. I only know that thinking about the meaning of the words that make up my FIRE anagram helps me go through the dark tunnel that leads to the next checkpoint on my journey, and I am grateful for each of you who joins me on this journey of Faith, Initiative, Reflection, and Empathy.