Social Work and Connection

I have a social work crush. A few years back, when I was first starting out as a social worker, I discovered this TED Talk:

[ted id=1042 lang=en]

Not only did I completely connect with Brené Brown’s ideas, I found a role model for the type of social worker I wanted to be, the kind that could create/discover an idea that everyone could benefit from. Brené talks about wanting to study connection and vulnerability as an attempt to solve her own struggles with those things. I think most social workers come to the profession with a secret goal to fix something in themselves, in their families, in their neighborhoods, or in their communities. They come to social work because they see themselves in the populations they serve, and they want to make a difference.

The longer I do this work, the more I fully embrace Brené’s ideas about vulnerability, shame, and the need for connection. In fact, the biggest problem I see most of my families face is isolation — they lack the natural supports that other people have, the proverbial village that helps raise a child. Without a natural village, a village of professionals and systems come in to support the family. Instead of extended family that can help provide child care, there are child care vouchers for day-care centers. Instead of a relative staying with the family to help with the kids or the house, homemaking services come in to offer support to overwhelmed parents. These families don’t have a lot of reliable friends. They tend not to be active in religious communities. They mostly don’t work so there aren’t supportive co-workers to help pick up any slack either. Sometimes they live in shelters, a housing system that forces isolation on families as a way to ensure that they don’t get too comfortable.

I spend most of my time with families trying to connect them to systems and seeing if they can possibly find a way to connect, or reconnect with those supports they do have, build on the connections they already have in their families, friends, and communities. The heart of family therapy is about strengthening the connections within the family to help the family function, as a whole, better.

Then there is this article on drug addiction:

Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.

So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.

Connection, again, is key. But the inherent struggle of connection is that it presupposes that you are worthy of it. Many of the individuals and families I encounter don’t feel worthy of connection. It’s part of what keeps them isolated (I strongly recommend you watch the above video in its entirety).

Next week, for social worker month, my co-workers and I will be participating in Secret Social Worker (even though among us we also have Marriage and Family Counselors and Mental Health Counselors – a collective of clinical helping professionals). We will draw names and randomly get assigned someone to do little things for every day for a week, before revealing our identities. We do these things not just because they are fun (and trust me, they are), but because it helps us all connect a little more to each other. As those whose job it is to help others connect, it is vitally important that we too stay connected to whatever supports we can muster.

This month is also the month I lost two vital members of my personal village, my grandmother and my mother, and so I would like to take a moment to recognize all my other connections, my friends, family, and especially those friends who have become family. These are the people I can be vulnerable with, who tell me I am a worthy person. While I do this work to help other people connect, I only CAN do this work because of the connections that sustain me.

So I will close of National Social Work Month with big huge thank you! Thank you Brené Brown for helping inspire my working philosophy, and thank you to all the connections in my life that keep me grounded and cared for. I literally couldn’t do this without you!

 

Cider Love: Magners, Irish Cider

Dear Readers,

Magners is a lie. Yes dear readers, the original name of Magners and how it is known in its native Ireland is not actually Magners. It is called Bulmers. I… I can’t even….

The lie.

So the story goes that the cider that we know in the United States as Magners was first created in 1935 by a man from South Tipperary, Ireland named William Magner. But then H.P. Bulmer, an English cider making company first established in 1887 in Hereford, England, bought 50% shares in William’s successful cider company in 1937. (H.P. Bulmer also owns Strongbow, but we’ll get to that, dear readers, some other time.) After the war, in 1946, H.P. Bulmers bought the remaining shares of the Magners cider company and changed the name to Bulmers. Then in the 60s, after a losing a lawsuit, they were forced to sell the Bulmers Magners company to Guinness and Allied Breweries. They continued to sell Bulmers in Ireland, and based on that success, decided to go international. But in doing so, they created a separate brand: the original Magners name. It has only been available in the United States in mass market production since about 2005.

I first had it in 2007. I did not know any of its history then, nor was I fully aware that it was made from 17 varieties of apples which contributes to its “unique and refreshing taste”. I only knew, as my last Cider Love entry may have informed you, that it introduced me to the world of cider and saved my social outings. The bottle is beer-bottle shaped and the cap must be removed by a bottle opener, the edge of a table, or if you’re the type, a set of very strong teeth (not recommended). It has the word “original” on it, which spoke to my fierce independent American soul, and the word “Irish” which spoke to my also very American need to claim some culture other than American as my roots, and also the word “cider”, which is what the bottle with the hard to open cap contained.

The beverage itself has that fermented fruit flavor unique to the cider category. As the bottle suggests, it definitely has a unique and distinctive taste. I just can’t really define for  you what that taste is. Magners is heavy on the fermentation flavor and light on the fruit (unlike some other ciders). You might imagine that one of the 17 varieties of apples that goes in to the brew is perhaps a little on the mushy side, bruised and starting to turn. These are not apple pie apples. These are Irish apples which I have to imagine have had to weather some bad, well, weather, and grown and thrived against the odds and possibly against the desires of their neighbors, and likely aren’t the kind you pick out so much as end up with. These are the red-headed step-children of apples, is what I’m saying. I mean, when you think of Ireland, are apples really what come to mind?

Castles yes, apple orchards, no. I mean, are there even apple trees in this picture? Maybe Google Images lied to me.

Magners tastes better than beer. But not that much better than beer. In fact, it is on the beer-y side of flavours that cider can come in and is missing perhaps only the hops (horrible horrible hops) flavor that makes beer something I personally cannot with any enjoyment consume. I can consume Magners with enjoyment, and I will voluntarily order it at any bar I find it at, unless there is maybe a better tasting cider option (which often there is not, so successful is the brand). That is to say, Magners, while being my first cider, is not my favorite cider. You never forget your first, but, you know, I’ve had better. My memory of it as this delicious amazing apple-y drink that is not beer doesn’t often hold up to the actual taste of it as this sort of slightly bitter apple-y drink that while not being beer is definitely in the same family. It is better over ice, or on draught (all things are better on draught) and on a hot summer day or a humid NYC evening, it most definitely hits the spot. The second bottle or pint is always better than the first. By the third, Irish eyes are smiling, and by the fourth (particularly if you’ve been having pints), you might be inclined to talk about how Irish weather is better than regular weather and squishy apples that grow where you don’t think apples should grow are better apples because, damnit, they GROW, don’t they, and they do it despite everything and you really should go to Ireland, it’s so beautiful, and if you do, go to the The Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival in September for the single lads and lasses, and Oh Danny Boy and all that.

Actually, Magners really is a fine cider, a lovely cider, the best cider really, and probably we should all have another round.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

Cheers,

J.M. Phillippe

 

(re)Collection

I have my grandmother’s cats. There are two of them, ceramic, shiny. I can’t remember them clearly; one is more pinkish, the other more purple or more blue. I think the pinkish one is sitting up, while the other is laying down. They are patchwork, but I couldn’t tell you a single detail of a single patch. I can tell you that they are currently sitting in the bedroom that used to be my room, on top of the wooden chest my mom bought me, and are among a handful of items of my grandmother’s scattered about the house.  Her vanity. A lamp (I think).  Several vases. And actually and properly hung up on the wall, oil paintings of roses she painted herself.

My memories of my grandmother are always of seeing her in her space, surrounded by these decorative items she collected, many of them gifts from her children and grandchildren. She and my grandfather lived in many houses, but every home had the same overall feel as the last, thanks to the furniture and items they took with them, thanks to Nanny’s display case, her tea pots, her porcelain flowers, her vases, her cats, her treasures. It was in her last home, the first she and my grandfather owned and which my aunts and uncles helped her paint and decorate, that I have the strongest memories of her. This was after my grandfather had died, after my brother had died, when I would go up to visit friends and family in a state I no longer lived in and stay with my grandmother, and we would sit in her living room among all her items and talk.

Most every other memory I have of my grandmother was through the lens of my mother. I heard more stories about her than from her. I heard about how complicated my mother’s relationship was with her. I heard about all the hurts and slights. I heard about the harshness in my mother’s reported childhood, the not-so-secret secrets, the dramas and hysterics and proof that my mother had it harder than me.

Those visits are the only memories I have of just my grandmother and me together.

Nanny told me about the loss of her own brother, when he was only 31. She would listen to me talk about mine, and add her own insights into how she saw her grandson. We would talk about the grieving process together, about the loss of her husband, about the loss of her grandson, about how much she missed having peers, people her age, to talk to.

Her hands would never sit idle, always playing with something, twisting something, tearing some piece of paper or cardboard into tiny confetti that she would later scoop up and throw away. My hands are her hands, always seeking something out to twist and twirl and fold and tear.

It’s not that I didn’t think that someday I would have in my possession things that belonged to my grandmother. I knew I would. This is the order of inheritance, of heirloom, of items passed down from generation to generation with the value of each item in the hands that held them before.

My grandmother passed away in March of 2006. And for the next 7 years, items that were hers were my mother’s. And then in March of 2013, they became mine.

My grandmother and I talked about my mother. My mother hated secrets, and wanted to know everything about everyone she cared about, and it was this insistence of knowing that most put her at odds with my grandmother in their later years together, because my grandmother was good at keeping secrets. Her rule with me (and with many family members) was that I could tell her anything — and she wouldn’t share what I said with anyone else. I know she didn’t share with my mother, because we both knew that what we talked about would be too hard for my mother to hear.

My grandmother with my  mom or one of my aubts.

My grandmother with my mom or one of my aunts.

We talked about how difficult and stubborn my mother was. We talked about how her grief was not like anyone else’s we knew. We talked about how hard it was for me to make my own space — in grieving my brother, in living my life, in holding the line between my mother and me — because my mom took up so much room. Nestled in among the soft pastels and muted jewel tones of my grandmother’s home, the sun going down without either of us getting up to turn on the lights, we shared the secret that my mother drove us both crazy, and that we loved her nonetheless.

We had two perspectives on the same person, the one who raised her and the one raised by her, and yet our conclusions were often much the same. I took great comfort that I was not imagining the things I saw in my mother, that I was not just an ungrateful daughter who couldn’t find a way to make my mother my priority in life.  I told Nanny things I didn’t dare tell anyone else, and she nodded, understanding, telling me it was okay, that I was okay, that I would keep being okay.

Visiting with my grandmother was easy. She was not a demanding host, and always insisted that I not alter my plans to accommodate her. I’d take her to the store, if she’d let me, or at least go to the store for her and always be sure to remember to bring her back something sweet. She let me sleep in in the mornings, shooing her dog away from the guest bedroom door so as not to disturb me. She let me come and go as I pleased. She made no demands. Her door was always open.

The room I slept in used to be hers; in their later years, she and my grandfather each had their own bedroom, and after he passed (and with help from my aunts) she redecorated and moved into his, turning her old one into the guest bedroom. I slept near the vanity that would someday find a spot in my old bedroom in my mother’s house. Every room of my grandmother’s home was decorated with various tchotskies so that the eye always had something interesting to rest on, some small treasure to find. (My mom would decorate her home with the same philosophy, if different color palette.) Nanny’s garden was much the same way, with surprises nestled in the wild-flowers and bushes to always give a visitor a sense of wonder.

Conversation with my grandmother was like taking a tour of her home; talks were peppered with jewels of information and insight, and any twist in the conversation could lead to a story I’d never heard told before, or never heard her tell in quite the same way. But the stories were so quiet and the insights so subtle that like the patchwork ceramic cats that were always on a side-table, I overlooked them. I remember the feel of our conversations better than the actual details.

Nanny and Bucka (my grandmother and grandfather).

Nanny and Bucka (my grandmother and grandfather).

I  mourn the stories she told, and would still be telling. I wish I had written them down, recorded them, found some way of preserving them. I remember my grandmother much the same way I remember those cats that are in a home 3,000 miles away from me: as a vague shape, a tinge of color, a feeling. She is a conversation at twilight, a bit of torn up paper, a collection of pretties.

I wish I knew her better.

 

 

 

 

*This post originally was published on another personal blog I no longer keep up.

For All the Amazing Women in My Life

This month is National Social Work Month, which is something that probably only social workers and people who work with social workers know about, let alone celebrate. It is also Women’s History Month. Not so coincidentally, the social work profession is dominated by women — 82% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are a lot of different explanations for this, from the fact that women were instrumental in creating social work as a field, to the idea that social work is women’s work (which some men want to change). All I know is that I happen to be surrounded by women most of the time in my daily work and this month I get to celebrate them twice.

I also happen to be part of an all-female writing group. This wasn’t by design — this was just the writing group that I ended up in after years of being part of various other writing groups. But one of the things that all the women in my group have in common is the desire to read and write about smart, capable, and complex female characters. And that is in part because we wanted to read characters that felt more like the women we actually know. Okay, so maybe the women in our day-to-day lives weren’t involved in secret all-women spy agencies, other world conflict surrounding a teen girl, or San Juan Island murder mysteries, but they are all smart, capable, and complex.

The other thing that this month holds for me, personally, is the reminder of some of the amazing women I have lost along the way, including my grandmother and mother, both who died in March (though in different years). There may be more blog entries this month than I normally would schedule just to try to get a chance to talk about everything that March holds for me: celebration, community, grief, and legacy.

I am very grateful to be a part of these communities, and to be surrounded by amazing women as a social worker, a writer, and a friend. The women in my life have shaped who I am in ways I am still discovering. They have taught me to be kind to myself, to take risks, to push boundaries. They have lead by example, and made me want to be an example as well.

So to each and everyone of them I say: thank you. I wouldn’t be here without you.

Cider

Cider Love: An Introduction

Dear Readers,

Let us start with a confession: I do not like beer. In fact, for the longest time, I did not like the taste of alcohol at all. My first alcoholic drink that I remember ever fully trying was a Zima my elder brother had procured for me. I was maybe 16 or 17. I made a face after every sip of the blasted theoretically fun and fizzy drink and followed it up with another sip of soda to drown out the taste. I only made it half-way through the bottle, after which my brother swore I was intoxicated and started cussing up a storm (I did not cuss in those days) but I believe this to be an exaggeration stapled on to the story over the years in order to give the tale some flavor. The drink certainly had none.

There were other forays into the world of alcohol, but all with similar outcomes of choking down the stuff with bewilderment that drinking was such a popular activity. Then someone gave me a mixed drink, blue in color and sweet-and-sour in taste, filled with more sugar than an 11 year old at a birthday party, and my taste buds began to shift. It was a needed shift as I had spent much of my early twenties feeling like a social pariah, the odd one out who never played a game where the point was to force your opponent to drink alcohol likely tainted by a ping pong ball or quarter, who never bought a pitcher of some pale yellow substance to share with friends in some sort of bonding ritual of bad decisions, and who spent every party trying to hide the fact that I was the one that consumed the last of the “mixers” which is why everyone was now doing ill-advised shots.

Then a dear friend handed me a bottle and changed my social drinking life forever: a bottle of Magners Irish Cider. You cannot imagine the complete relief I felt after discovering that there was an alcoholic drink that I actually enjoyed, and that came in a pack that I could buy and bring with me to parties. No more would I have to try to find that one beer that tasted the most like (filthy, gross) water and shove lemons and limes in it and nurse it with the same enthusiasm formerly reserved for eating Brussel sprouts. No longer would I have to buy a six pack of whatever beer I happened to last see a commercial for and present it to the party like an entrance fee while only actually consuming the fruit punch flavored water I brought with me.

No, in Magners I had found that rare beast of party-acceptable beverage that I actually wanted to consume myself. It didn’t even matter if no one but me drank my proffered prize – it just meant more cider for me. I also had a reason to prefer one drinking establishment over another based on how they answered this question: “do you have any hard cider?” Bottle or pint in hand, I could walk among my fellow drunken revelers confident in my ability to fit in with the throngs while also remaining somehow unique, which is the ultimate goal of most twenty-somethings.

My palate for alcohol has sophisticated since my first sip of Magners, and the discovery that I liked both wine and whiskey has ensured that I can always find a drink appropriate to the social occasion, but my love of hard cider as a category has only deepened. Thus, every month I will pick one cider to review for you, my dear readers, so that you may share my enthusiasm for all things fermented apple.

Next month: Magners, my first cider.

Libation-fueled love,

J. M. Phillippe

More Than a Day Job

I didn’t start out life wanting to be a social worker. Honestly, I had no idea what a social worker did, and certainly never had any aspirations to pursue a career in the field. I had graduated with a dual degree in English (creative writing) and Journalism, and was convinced that I was on the Jack London/Hemingway journalist-to-novelist path.

Life, of course, had other plans, and where I eventually ended up was public relations. I am sure there are people for whom public relations is the right career. I am not that person. I was searching for something more than the long list of crappy day jobs I’d held throughout my twenties, something different than the marketing-focused writing I was doing, and someone suggested that social work might be the right way for me to go. It was a two-year professional masters degree. There were licenses to earn that would eventually put me at the “can have a private practice” level, and all my experience working in various types of jobs over the years would be an asset in the field.

So I did my research and discovered that social work was actually a very interesting and varied field, with clinical work, community organizing work, and even jobs in the for-profit sector. There were tons of different populations I could work with, in a huge range of job titles, but it was the clinical parts that appealed to me. Social work has been described as psychology meets sociology, or possibly, applied psychology. Clinical social workers are less interested in how people got to where they are than helping them make the changes they need to make for a successful future. Most social workers want to put themselves out of work. That is, the goal is to get our clients to a point where they no longer need our services because whatever goal they came to us with has been achieved.

For me it ended up being the ultimate day job, because it doesn’t feel like a day job. I currently work for an agency that serves families who are at risk of having their children placed into foster care. I do family therapy; it is the most challenging work I have ever done. And yes, it is rewarding, but not in the way most people think of. Like being a writer, the moments that make it all worth it are more sporadic than people want to admit. But they are there, and they are amazing.

Whenever I told people I was a freelance writer, they would sort of nod along and ask me how it was going with a tone that suggested that it probably wasn’t going very well. To be fair, in my case they were probably right. Now, when I tell people I am a social worker, those who have a sense of the field usually make some sort of comment along the lines of “I don’t know how you do it.” There is usually a sense of oh, you’re one of those really socially minded people who like, helps other people. Well,  yes. I am. And yes, it is hard. But also, it’s a job. I’m not a saint. I collect a paycheck, too.

But if it sounds impressive, I’ll take it. 😉

Writer, capital W

Writers write. It is the most passed on wisdom of every book, blog, article, podcast, interview, or novelty mug about writing. Writer’s write. They do it every day. They do it with a passion and a drive akin to that of breathing. They write because they cannot help themselves; they would be lost if they could not write.

If you can be happy doing anything else, the famous quote goes, then do that. Don’t write because you merely want to or think the lifestyle would be nice. Write because it is in your blood, because you can’t help yourself, because you are so driven. If you are not driven, if you are not writing every day (EVERY DAY!!) then don’t bother calling yourself a writer. You’re a hobbyist, a poser, something else, something scornful. You’re not a real writer.

Impostor syndrome is alive and well among writers, that feeling that somehow whatever it is you are doing, it’s not enough to claim the title of Writer, capital W.

I don’t write every day. I have never maintained a consistent writing schedule. My journals and diaries over the years go from daily entries to every-so-many days, to weeks, even years later with quickly scratched out “since last time I wrote, all this happened” summaries. And yet, since I was 8 years old, I have called myself a writer. Well, I called myself a writer until some point in my late 20s, maybe around when I turned 30, when I realized that I was not writing every day, or very much at all, and that maybe, maybe, I should give up the title.

These days I call myself a social worker, thanks to the degree I earned, the license I obtained. I have found in this title, this new identity, markers that fit me very well. Social workers are great at giving help but horrible at asking for it. Social workers solve everyone else’s problems, but not their own. Social workers analyze, and over analyze, and then question the biases and prejudices that fuel those analyses. They are sensitive (perhaps overly so) and they care a great deal. But they are also jaded, cynical, have seen too much. They press on anyway, with a dogged optimism that they never bother trying to reconcile with their cynicism. They hold both together at the same time.

But I have never abandoned my first dream, my first identity, of being a writer. It has become my self-care, the comfort of a story, the pleasure of a well-turned phrase, the peace that comes with getting into the flow of a narrative, and letting it carry you away.

And now I am happy to announce that I may finally have a new chance to make a claim on an old title. My book, Perfect Likeness, has found a publisher, and come this September I will be impostor no more!