Saturday, April 2, 2011

Apple Tree

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
                                              -English proverb

I have a friend whose father died recently. His name was Pierre. I never met Pierre, but I did get to read a eulogy that was written about him that engendered a sense of loss even for me—a lost opportunity to meet and to know a stellar human being. As I read about Pierre, I began to feel that I knew my friend a little better, too. I found myself shaking my head and saying, “ah, no wonder,” and “so, that’s where he gets it from” as I read about Pierre’s social conscience, his love of the arts, his fine sense of humor. You see, the saying is true. The apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree. I can clearly see bits of the Pierre I only read about in the man I’ve been privileged to know in person, his son.

It has me thinking about a lot of people I know, and wondering about those most influential in their lives. It makes me want to throw a huge party and invite the parents of some of my most favorite people in the world, to actually see those whom I haven’t met, talk to them, thank them. I’m too late for a few of them, sadly. But I wonder just the same.

Who made Joseph so creative and driven, who helped Julie learn to work so clearly from her heart center in all she does?  Who made Kara so disciplined and devoted in pursuit of her art, or gave Jenn the ability to find the humor in even the worst situation? Who helped Matt and Bean to understand that hard work and passion would enable them to make lives making art, despite the challenges artists may face? Who made Kathleen someone who’d take a day off work to drive across two states for a friend in need, or Beth put up with a friend on her couch for an eternity, even in a tiny apartment? Who made Jenny so funny and spirited and generous, or Michele so deeply in love with the whole universe? Who gave Gail the ability to say and hear the most difficult things with gentleness and equanimity? Who made Abby someone who, even in a concrete jungle, takes pains to walk gently on this Earth, or Laura someone of deep empathy who strives consciously and whole-heartedly to plant these same seeds in her children? There are many others I can think of and see clearly in my mind, and I know the things I so treasure in them are not accidental qualities.

I realize that no single influence is responsible for who we are or who we become. There are teachers, friends, other family members, who help mold us. There is life itself, and its unpredictability that leaves its mark sometimes, as well. I know, too, that some people have turned out well by observing bad examples and choosing to do something differently. Some ask themselves things like “What would Jesus do,” or “What would Elvis do.” Some ask themselves, quite rightly and sadly, “What would my parents do,” and then make every effort to do the opposite. But the influence of those who bring us into the world, for good or ill, is undeniable.

I’m reflecting on this a lot lately. And here is where the reader is urged to remember that in college I majored in “Strained Metaphors”. I have a difficult job right now. I work in one of the more troubled cities in my state, in one of the more troubled areas of that city, in a mental health facility. I work with children and adolescents and, sometimes, their families . . .when I can get those families to engage in treatment or when they aren't working three jobs to make ends meet. The children suffer from mental illness and behavioral problems, many of the adolescents have substance abuse issues added to this. In this place, I see the apple tree metaphor in action every day. I would also liken it to a vineyard  in some ways. They say that in the vineyard’s final product—its wine—a finely-tuned palette can taste the subtle differences in the soil content, or the weather patterns of a given year. I guess the two metaphors are similar, in that they both refer to the nourishment afforded by the soil, the larger weather patterns. In many of the families with whom I’m working, the roots of the trees go deep, deep down . . .into a veritable Superfund site of toxicity. Down there, if you could test this metaphorical soil, you’d see domestic violence, intrafamilial and intergenerational sexual abuse, drug addiction, alcoholism, undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, teen mothers and fathers, abandonment, incarceration, gang violence, undiagnosed learning disabilities, poverty, the legacy of racism and class-ism,  environmental toxicity and its accompanying physical ailments, community violence, near constant noise, near ubiquitous concrete and graffiti and trash, learned helplessness and hopelessness. And lately, for many of these families, the recent weather has brought unemployment, foreclosure, cuts to needed services, cuts to fuel assistance, cuts to police protection in their neighborhoods, frustration and hardship from which there is no escape, except perhaps in a bottle or a blunt, or simply disappearing physically or emotionally. Those headlines you read, those issues the talking heads and pundits make a sport out of, are an actual fact in the lives of real people. This is the true trickle-down of our economic and social policies, and in a broader sense, of our illusory sense of our separateness from each other, our greed and our individualism run amok. . . and it’s one of the ugliest and saddest things I’ve ever seen.  Yes, there is resilience among the people I'm working with and for---make no mistake about it. But even it regularly struggles to gain a foothold.

We have something at my workplace called “The Quiet Room”. This is a bit of Orwellian language, as the quiet room is anything but. It’s where kids go who can’t get themselves under control, and it’s two doors down from my office. Ever tried to compose a document while the sound of feet ramming a solid wooden door continues, unabated, for 20 to 30 minutes at a time in the background? Ever tried to do it while the sound of wailing—not mere crying, but wailing from the depths of that superfund site, from the depths of generations—fills the airwaves? Ever looked through a thick glass window at a child so out of control and clearly terrified of this fact, a child so unable to cope that you had to choke back tears yourself, lest you appear “unprofessional”; had to hold back from saying out loud, “My God, what did they do to you? What have we done to you? How can that little five-year-old body carry that much pain?”

This is my Monday through Friday. Increasingly, and quite worrying to me, it is also my Saturday and Sunday, as I carry these kids home with me in my heart, carry them into my dreams and nightmares. Perhaps now you see why I’m feeling a double measure of gratitude for the healthy people in my life, and the people who shaped them. As I think of these people, I encourage you, Reader, here and now, to take a moment to think about those who have helped steer your course in life, whether parents or teachers or anyone else. I encourage you, also, to notice your own influence, even in little ways, on the daily lives of others. So much lies hidden beneath the soil of any life. Perhaps something you say or do in this orchard we all share, however small or insignificant it might seem to you, acts to prune or to fertilize at just the right time.

I have had my doubts lately about how much longer I’ll be able to do this work, in this setting.  I have regularly felt unsafe in the face of the anger that sometimes springs forth from the despair of my clients, felt unsafe calling out for "staff" who may or may not be available to help me or my occasionally out-of-control clients. How long before the contaminants begin to poison more than my sleep? I’ve noticed some tachycardia lately in the midst of tense situations on the job, and it scares me. Though, it seems fitting that the heart is where I'd see the potential damage first.

To be sure, I chose this. I’m not in this setting because I have no choice. I had the privilege of choosing this as my work. Unlike my clients, I do have the freedom and the means to leave, and there are days where such a decision is tempting. But then I remember a real orchard I know. It’s in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, at the base of my favorite mountain, my favorite place. It’s an old orchard, and there are many large, almost sprawling trees, so heavy with fruit in the autumn that one marvels when they aren’t uprooted by it. This orchard takes even the fallen apples and transforms them into a sweet, sharp cider. As I write this, I can hear in my head the snap of one of their McIntosh apples as I sink my teeth in and taste the crisp sweetness.
There’s a lot to this orchard. There are extremes of weather, even there at the lower section of the mountain. There are ponds and wildflowers and long grasses, wild turkeys and coyotes and rabbits, stone walls and hills, some gentle, some more steep, and all of it making its way, somehow, into the fruit of this place.

If you’ve ever been to such a place, you’ll know that in between the trees, the sun shines, and there is light.
You’ll know that while the apples tend not to fall far from the tree, sometimes in the right place, they will roll out between the trees and into that light.
I’m telling myself lately that if I lay myself upon this soil and incline myself just so, these apples falling into my lap might just roll far enough to leave the shadows behind.

It has become a mantra of sorts:

Roll, apples. C’mon now . . . roll.