Friday, August 31, 2012

What I didn't know

This summer I've been trying to make voice contact with all my supporters... rather than assuming sending out email newsletters is enough to consider these relationships to be true partnerships. One sign that I've been coasting too long is that some of them expressed surprise that I care about them and want to know what's going on in their lives.

These phone calls have really helped offset the sense of social isolation I feel, as a new girl in town who longs for friends but, with too many unpredictable responsibilities to juggle, hasn't figured out how to find and effectively protect the time and energy to actually make friends or see the ones I have.

When I actually reach some of these folks on the phone it's been wonderful. Encounters with old friends. I love hearing what's going on in people's lives, love hearing their stories. And even though talking on the phone is not my favorite way to do that, it's been good.

But I've also run into startling news from quite a few of them. One had been battling depression. Her husband has leukemia. Another is in a marriage was just starting to stabilize after a series of difficult and drawn out struggles that could have destroyed it.

Today I heard back from one I'd been trying to reach on email before making the phone call. "Dear [Him] and [Her]," I'd written, "I'm so grateful for you and your support of my ministry!"

"[Him] and I have been divorced for almost a year now," she finally wrote back.

Crap. I hate divorce. Hate that she went through this, that he did, and that I didn't know.

I've understood, especially when my ministry has taken me to some exotic locale, that those who support me take some vicarious pleasure and significance in being part of it, in making it possible for me to do what they cannot and hearing about it along the way. That they like hearing about my adventures in faith and in foreign places. I fear I have less to "offer" them now that my work has shifted more to what I can do with a keyboard and computer screen, those these tools have always been a bit part of my work, no matter the time zone.

This fall, I'm asking God to broaden my support base and bring me a dozen new ministry partners. That's right: 12. I think that's what I need. I'm especially hoping that some of my favorite people, people with whom I feel a sense of bond or kinship, will, when asked, join this team. My hope is that even if there are no pictures or stories from my latest trip overseas that God will use them to multiply my efforts to serve global purposes with diligence and effectiveness and encourage them through it.

Perhaps praying for them and with them not only about what's going on with me, but with what's going on with them, is one of the best things I can give them. I've been chicken about praying with people over the phone. What if they've never done that before and think it's weird? I think it's worth pushing through.

Man, what a mix of joy and pain life can be. And how vulnerable we all are. So much in common.

"I thank my God every time I remember you.  In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy  because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." Phil. 1:3-6

Friday, August 24, 2012

This and That

Another personal update... though I intend to write things more universal, again, soon.

Yesterday was a big news day for us. I'll spare you the details, but here's the gist.

1. A bad interpersonal situation was re-opened yesterday with a discovery that an incident and conflict from last spring is going to cost us quite a bit of money. Rats.

2. As I was thinking about leads on contract work, someone came to mind and I sent off an email that led to what may just materialize into a job offer by the end of next week. How encouraging! It's a 10 hour/week gig that's right up my alley. The pay would be modest but it would help. Flexible work, virtually no ramp up, and something I might be able to continue with, happily, indefinitely.  

3. Someone from the top of my list of people I'd love to have join my support team gave a positive response. We need to talk more, but it looks like they're quite willing and just need to decide when/how much they can give. Last week I sent tentative invitations to two other potential supporters of the same ilk, and have been chicken about following up. Got to do that! And keep praying/looking for who to contact next.

4. Got my first email newsletter out since life turned upside down - a hard one to write, and who knows if I struck the right note? But, whew, it's done.

5. Hubs was out last night - drill night at the fire department. I made a hearty dinner for the kids. They never showed up to eat it. (Ha! Shoe's on the other foot now, huh, Mom?) So I decided to go out for an early evening run, doing laps in the filbert orchard a couple blocks over. Uplifting music on my headphones and a beautiful time of day. Keeping my eyes on the lovely light reflecting off  tall grasses of the meadow next to the orchard, I came out on the other side and realized the meadow was also home to a healthy crop of wild blackberries. Guess who's going picking tomorrow?  Mmm, pie. I am not sure anyone can be anxious about their life with a mouth full of warm blackberry pie.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Job Thing

The journey continues. I've been working out scenarios with my supervisor, crunching numbers, updating resumes, and trying to figure out what it would look like to take on an outside job so we can pay the bills.

It's a little weird because I'm not actually unemployed; I have plenty of work with my ministry job. But I'm going to have to accept a whole lot less compensation for it, and since we need the money, a second job seems the way to go. At least for now.

What's out there, what could I get, and how do I find it? That's what I've been exploring this week.

It would really help if I wasn't so upset about the whole thing. It's been hard not to lash out at Hubs when he starts talking about new beginnings, letting go, and looking for God's hand in this. (When he dreams about me getting something for $60k that would allow him to quit his job and get his MDiv done, I just laugh.)

It's been good to realize that finding or taking on a new job isn't what I'm upset about, though. (Ask me again, later!) Actually, I welcome the challenge. This could be fun, a great addition to my life. So what's bringing me to tears? It's the idea that my career in ministry may be coming to an end. I really don't want that to happen! All the more reason, perhaps, to be chipper and diligent about doing all I can to get and keep another job, one that will take the pressure off this one having to pay the bills.

So, what am I doing? I reworked my resume and my profile on LinkedIn. I called the stepsister who just moved and is about to start a new job, and have heard from my other stepsister and my own sister about the things they've learned as they've been looking for work; neither has been successful yet. I'm tracking down references. I texted with a couple of old friends about it - feeling a little too tender to want to talk on the phone.

Very soon, though, I need to go more public with this. Need to let the rest of my coworkers and colleagues know I'm looking for work and why, as well as my supporters, put out something to the folks on my mailing list - all things I think should happen before I allude to the situation someplace like Facebook.

Which would you rather write, a newsletter or update along the lines of "my problem and how it was solved"? or "my crisis and how it's turning my life upside down right now"? I have to remind myself that asking for prayer about the whole thing actually draws other people in and results in more glory given back to God in the form of gratitude when the matter is resolved!

There are so many different directions I could go, lots of avenues to pursue to find work (also, to find support. Working on that too). Encouraging, if challenging, to have so many things I can try. Work from home, or from a cubicle or service counter? I could go either way on that. I'm eliminating, at least for now, ill-fitting options like a home business, childcare, or food service; retail may be a possibility but I've never done it before. (Willingness to learn will only get you so far. Better to play to strengths.) Here's what I'm looking at instead:

PROFESSIONAL CONTRACT WORK: I spent a few hours this week probing opportunities for contract work of the sort I have done the most - teaching (specifically, "Perspectives" classes). That may bear fruit for spring term but fall term is lighter and most folks will have nailed down their plans a few months ago. So unless someone needs an emergency substitute, not much is likely to come of it. I may also be able to find some contract work connected with writing/editing - including online training, public relations, or curriculum development. What do you think? Some of my colleagues have filled in the gaps those ways. But these hard economic times are causing most of the Christian organizations to tighten their belts, so that kind of work is becoming scarce and is unlikely to come together quickly.

TEMP JOBS: I called a temp service and have an interview with them on Monday morning. I think I'm overqualified for the kind of work they have, but I think they can bring a bit of work my way, maybe immediately. I'm hoping, at the end of the interview, to ask them a few more questions about what's out there and who else I should talk to. The phone book (oh, I know, quaint!) lists about 20 employment agencies in our little town, and most of them I know nothing about. Temp work can mean just about anything. It doesn't pay a whole lot, but it brings the opportunity to serve people without a big ramp-up or having to take the work home with you or commit to be there long term. A couple day a week or a week a month might meet the need, and I could stop at any point if my support or other kinds of work came up to take its place, right?

PART TIME ADMIN/CLERICAL: What about an admin job in a school, church, hospital, etc, where they just needed (or could only fund) someone to work part-time? I could get a reliable paycheck, consistent hours, and a way to get out of the house and into the real world all in one. Many of those jobs are 20 hours a week, which seems like more than I need and would require some major adjustments with family life and my ministry job. But if the support situation doesn't turn around, we'll have a long-term need and such a job could be God's gift to us.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Personal update - a rollercoaster week

I've put quite a bit of effort into communicating with folks about the changes that have come my way this last year - you know, new name and address and marital status, and all that go with them!

The one thing I've hoped could stay the same has been my occupation. But I was a little nervous about this. Would moving another time zone West and joining forces with a guy who does something quite different weaken my connection to my work team, most of whom live on the other side of the country? And what about the finances? Would supporters - or potential supporters - stick with me and continue to give, or would they start to think of me as someone who didn't really need their partnership any more - perhaps believing my expenses have gone down, not up?

It's been such a blessing to be able to continue in full-time ministry and doing pretty much the same kind of projects since 2007, some much longer than that. Folks who cheered me on, back in 1994, may have expected me to stick with this gig for a couple of years ...  it's been 18.

This week I wondered if the whole thing was going to crumble.

The loss of a major donor this spring and depletion of the cushion from another donor's generous one-time gift were quickly followed by the news - revealed just a few days ago - that my home church (which had been covering 10-20% of my support since the mid-90's) had hit a financial crisis, made drastic cuts to its mission budget, and eliminated all funds for my support several months earlier. Communication had gone astray; the news caught me by surprise.

Much relieved this morning to discover in conversation with my supervisor that our agency will be able to make some changes to my position and status, changes which will not require large shifts in responsibilities but will reduce the funds I need to raise about $900/month. That will make all the difference. I can keep my job. I will, though, need to request a rather large salary cut, look for some freelance or part-time work, and put major efforts into raising new support. That will mean putting other things on the back burner - including some good things that had been cooking along quite nicely!  

Emotionally, this week has been a rollercoaster. Largely because the deeper seated issues I have with fear, shame, and performance - questions of where I find my identity, safety, and peace which need to be explored further. That process can only help my work and my marriage, not to mention my relationship with God and other people. Good, but can be quite painful.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

What does the fire service really do, anyway?

Continuing from Cultural Notes on the World of Firefighters and Just a guy thing?

A couple months ago I married a guy who volunteers with our local fire department as a chaplain and EMT... something I realized from our very first date was way more than a little hobby on the side. For part 3 of my little series on dispatches on life in the fire district, let me just share a few of the "aha!" discoveries that have helped me get how this part of my husband's world really works.

So, what firemen are there for is to put out fires, right? 

Nope. That's what I thought, but it's not true. Fires are rare, and I understand it's bad form to cheer if you get to put one out (at least don't look happy in front of the homeowner!).

More than 80 percent of the 911 calls that go to the fire department are not fire-related but "medical." Somebody has been in an accident, or fainted, or thinks they're having a heart attack or stroke. They've fallen and can't get up. Or maybe they are fine but they saw someone else who seemed to be in trouble and called on their behalf. If it's a dangerous situation, the police may go in first, and they will have the fire department called in to assist if someone is hurt.

Since so much of the work is on the medical side, many of the fire district volunteers aren't authorized or expected to go into fires at all, but they have plenty of work to do responding to medical emergencies and dangers (even on a fire scene). These are the EMT's. Some of them also hold jobs as nurses, medical assistants, or paramedics. 

What about rescuing kitties from trees?

Oh, come on, when's the last time you walked by a tree and saw a cat skeleton? Those little buggers can take care of themselves pretty well.

Fishermen stranded on sandbars? That's another story!

When an ambulance or fire truck goes by, especially with sirens on, we should stop and pray because someone's in trouble, right? 

It's never a bad idea to pray... Most of the time when someone calls 911 and the fire department and/or police gets sent out, it's for something the caller considers an emergency. It's true that somebody could be dying. There may have been an accident or a house could be on fire.

But most of the time it's not like that. Sometimes the problem is resolved before the fire department gets there or doesn't turn out to be a problem after all. So when you see or hear them on the road, know that the fire trucks and the medics may be on their way to help someone who doesn't want or need help or to investigate something that turns out to be quite minor in the end. I guess that's a good thing, huh?

One more interesting note: When you see a fire truck out and about they may be just getting gas or running some other errand. I see full-time staff from the various fire departments all the time at our local grocery store. Hubs tells me they've just come to do their shopping. That's right, the station fridge must be kept well stocked, and since you're on the job and need to be ready to respond, you bring your stuff with you when you go to the store. Nobody packs their own sack lunch at home and eats at their "desk." They like to shop, cook, and eat together! I'm tempted to drop by and knock on the door at lunch time. See if these handy folks are also good cooks.

Have you seen commercials for the new TV show this fall, "Chicago Fire"? I'd like to check it out and see how accurate it is. Hubs, though, is skeptical and not really interested. Who wants to watch that kind of stuff when you deal with it all the time?

Monday, August 06, 2012

Just a guy thing?

Continuing from Cultural Notes on the World of Firefighters.

(It might be helpful to add a disclaimer that these are just my personal observations as I try to understand this big part of my husband's world - not the result of any formal or objective research.) 

Is the Fire Department a Man's World?

Those big red trucks down at the station seem fueled as much by testosterone as anything else. When talk of them comes up in mixed company, only the men's eyes light up at delight with the thought of tearing down the road in a firetruck, a high-powered toolbox on wheels.

You might expect the fire station subculture to be utterly masculine. In fact, that was one of the questions I had about the fire district: Is this just a guy thing? I don't think it is.

As a promising sign, when I spend time with my husband's firefighting friends I see a good number of women in their ranks. Some of them remind me of the tomboys I knew as a kid, while others are more girly. But they are women who can do most everything a man can. I haven't gone fishing for stories of discrimination against women, subtle or overt, but I haven't been stumbling over them, either.

Besides the women who volunteer, I see wives and daughters and girlfriends who seem quite comfortable being part of this world and who are included in it as a matter of course. Serving with the fire district is not the kind of thing you can do without affecting the people close to you; they have to be on board with it in some sense or you won't be able to keep it up. At this weekend's barbecue fundraiser I worked alongside one daughter who can't wait to get her driver's license so she can enter the training program and join the department; others schedule their lives around the volunteer association's schedule and hate to miss an event. I start to see why they call it a "family."

Although I don't have experience in athletics or the military, I think the gender dynamics of the fire department may resemble what you would find in one of those environments. Come to think of it, the whole fire department culture is part sports team, part para-military unit. They have rank and titles and procedures, a code of ethics, a well developed system for training and socializing new recruits, and of course the whole thing depends on being able to perform well, physically, under pressure. There are contests of various kinds, badges and certificates, an annual awards banquet, a department photographer, and of course, uniforms. There's some drinking and cussing and dirty joke telling, though little tolerance for such things when it's time to be professional - if you mess up, the honor and performance of the whole group is at stake.

I find the gender equality rather refreshing after running into masculine/feminine distinctions tucked into so many nooks and crannies of the Christian subculture I'm part of. "Let the men do that," Christian men will stay, stopping me from stacking chairs or putting up tables at church - as if such a task is utterly unbecoming for a woman. Then I'm asked to do artsy and/or "feminine" things that are really not up my alley. On the plus side, this sort of segregation can give both men and women an honored and protected place to build relationships and make contributions which they might not find so easily in the big bad world. Being part of it has also taught me skills and social graces I might not have picked up on my own - some of which have proven useful in my new life as a wife, stepmother, and de facto housekeeper. On the negative side, though, such segregation can feel quite confining. It may keep many from using the gifts and skills they actually have rather than the ones they are "supposed" to have.

The fire department doesn't do that. There's a place for any man or woman who wants to be there, AND who can make (and keep) the commitment and do the work. While assignments may reflect what you're good at, they don't seem to come with ready-made assumptions about what that might be. Everyone is expected to learn and grow, to strive for the capacity to do whatever it is that's needed. That's the only way the whole team stays safe. Anyone who can't pull their weight holds the team back and may put them in danger.

Such an environment has little room for gender discrimination. Or, for that matter, chivalry.

Friday, August 03, 2012

The School System and a Diversity of Subcultures

Not long after my sister and I had our seventh birthday our family had a garage sale, loaded what was left into what seemed a very big moving truck, and piled into the station wagon with the dog for a long trip from one coast to the other. We were moving.

My father had been raised on a farm in Indiana and told my mother he had little or no interest in farming, but after some years away from it had gotten involved in managing a community garden project and now wanted to reconnect with the land. Maybe raise some sheep.

He got a job on the West Coast, where my mother was from, and we moved to a small farm on an island in Puget Sound. That's where we lived for 5-6 years until for a variety of reasons my parents' marriage dissolved.

Growing up in a small town / rural setting had a lot to offer a kid. We had plenty of chores to do around the house and property - picking vegetables, gathering eggs, minding the sheep, stacking firewood. Mom and Dad both worked hard while we complained about doing our share but had little of the back-breaking, all-day work that might have characterized life on a larger farm. There was plenty of time to play in the barn and build forts in the woods and name all the chickens. Our place had been landscaped so that something was in bloom every day of the year, and I loved to fill vases throughout the house with camellias, forsythia, roses - almost as much as I loved going out to the garden to graze on green beans, strawberries, and tomatoes of every description.

The School System

There must have been some homeschoolers on the island, but I wasn't aware of them; otherwise all the kids on the island went to the same elementary schools and middle school, and most would go to the same high school unless they took a ferry to mainland.

Although island life attracted folks others might consider kind of weird, in other ways the diversity was limited. In the schools, there were rich kids and poor kids but few black kids or Asian kids, and there was really only one clique of "popular" ones. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't Lord of the Flies or anything, but there was a pretty strong sense of social organization. I grew up having crushes on the same boys and wanting to be liked by the same girls as everyone else in my class.

Only later did I realize that while this is a common experience it is not a universal one. Both the D.C. suburb where I'd begun my education and the urban Seattle schools I would experience next were characterized by much more diversity and tolerance. I was taken by surprise in my eighth grade year at an inner city junior high to find how provincial I really was - how much I assumed people would at least try to march to the beat of the same drummer. Why didn't more people make fun of the kid in my math class named Geronimo, or the boy from choir who minced down the hallway like a girl and liked to paint his fingernails?

While I continued to look down on those who tried to be as weird as possible for no reason in particular, I was intrigued by the culture where, in spite of some bullying and racial conflict (of which I was sometimes a victim), it seemed as if people really were largely free to be themselves. Rather than pressured to fit into a restrictive mold.

Another move brought me to a school system and culture once again fashioned to form and favor just a certain kind of kid. There was less friction, and more money, and everybody was a lot more the same. I did well academically, but it was pretty lonely. In such a context I believed the lie of the enemy that there must be something wrong with me if I wasn't just like everybody else. Once again, even though the school was much bigger than the schools on the island, everyone in my class had crushes on the same boys and wanted to be liked by the same girls and there was really only one clique of popular kids.

I wonder if that's part of why I chose a college where diversity, once again, was "cool." Though I'm not sure I realized, going into it, that college would be so different, socially/culturally, than high school had been. It was a pleasant surprise.

Multiculturalism v. Blending in

Where is this rambling memoir going? I'm just wondering, now that I'm in my 40s, about the relationship between the culture(s) of a community - and particularly of a school system - and its effect on kids. How they feel about themselves. What kind of conclusions they reach about their own identity. How they look at other people. I don't think I'll ever have the chance to do this, but having tasted both I think I'd rather raise my kids in an environment that values diversity over homogeneity and "success." Living in an urban or international setting, at least for a number of years, would provide that. Is it something we can "make happen" without moving into a big city or going overseas?

Of course there are all kinds of other factors that go into where we decide to live and what we think will be best for our kids, including how we try to educate them. The three schools I attended that had a "free to be you and me" culture only got it through a great deal of social engineering. In the first case, the whole town had been designed - as Wikipedia describes it - to eliminate racial, religious, and class segregation (more here). The student bodies of the schools I attended in eighth and ninth grades were the result of Seattle's policy of forcibly busing kids long distances to create more integrated schools (more on that here).  

The world has changed so much since I was in school. Doing the kind of work I do, I keep running into people from medium-sized and small towns now hosting large populations of first-generation immigrants, refugees, and international students. In some cases this has brought conflict and violence, but I can't help but think the net result of growing diversity is good for all of us, that it will help us learn lessons about respecting other people's values and ways of life that we might not learn any other way - simultaneously, perhaps learning to accept our own eccentricities without idolizing them, becoming comfortable in our own skin, whatever its color.