Monday, June 16, 2014

Hard times, Come again no more...

Late afternoon on Sunday. Sitting in my car...chatting on the phone to my friend...beautiful Perth winter afternoon, bright as bright could as blue could be...and warm in the sun.
I'm parked outside Nandos, Subway, Wok in a Box, Pasta Cup and Liquorland. Hungry Jack's is about 100 metres away. I'm joking with my friend about whether or not I could eat a meatball sub while driving and not get it all over my front and give the game away.
My window is down.  A man sees me and comes right up to the window and tells me that he's trying to get some food...could I help him? My Rick will tell you that I'm like the Queen in as much as neither of us carry cash. But today I have a $10 note and so I give it to him...he kisses my hand and God Blesses me and I tell him to never mind that, just go and eat. And that's exactly what he did. 

I don't want to make a drama out of it but I have to say that he and his situation has stayed with me. 

A comfortable suburb in the richest state in the Lucky Country. 

And a man finds himself in the situation where he has to rely on a stranger in order to eat. 

Before I jump to conclusions about how he lived I think it's likely that he didn't ever have enough cash to do what he needed to do in the first place. And I have to confess that I watched carefully to see that he did buy food with the $10 ($10!!! The princely sum...). The story I was telling myself about him was all about drink and drugs.

And he was hungry. 

To be honest with you, I'm not really that fussed about what the circumstances were that brought him to that point...I don't really care if he drinks or uses drugs or just squanders his cash. But I am bothered that, in the midst of all our excess, someone is hungry. And I'm troubled that the solution he finds for his hunger only serves to stigmatise him.

I hear my friends and family in the UK talk about how things are there. How tight it is with families relying on food banks for basic provisions. I hear all the stuff that's been said here about how we all have to share the pain that will result from the last Budget. But I know that we won't all share that will be the people on the edges who'll feel it most...the people who are already feeling pretty stretched and threadbare. That makes me angry and sad.

You won't be surprised to know that I don't have any answers, but here's a song that expresses my thoughts and concerns. Those of us not yet suffering might think on...

Monday, June 9, 2014

Where DO all the B'stards work? - R.I.P. Rik Mayall

A few thoughts that seem to have a connection for me...what anyone who reads this will make of them...well, that's for them to decide...

Last week I was doing some training. The group were lovely. Really lovely people, all of them working in services. All of them committed to doing the best job they can to support the people they work with. At the end of the 3 days, one of the participants remarked on what a great group of people they were. He went on to say that he keeps meeting really nice people who work in the disability sector AND he keeps hearing all these stories of bad things that happen in services. 
He asked the question, 'Where do all the bastards work?'

Today I watched one of the videos that regularly appear on my Facebook page  from Upworthy. This particular video had been shared by my friend Heather Anderson, a good woman upon whose instincts and judgements I would stake my life. I was thinking that if she was recommending this video it was definitely worth having a look. Although the talk is given by an actress playing a marketing consultant to the food industry, the facts about the produce and the marketing are 100% real. She talks about the tricks of the marketing trade and then lets us in to the great big secret weapon that marketers rely upon. Turns out that their greatest secret is us and our propensity to simply ignore what we won't or can't face. We just don't think about it. She calls it 'wilful ignorance'
The video articulates our unwillingness to confront the horror of factory farming and to change our behaviours in the face of unspeakable cruelty to the animals who end up on our supermarket shelves.  It ends with a damning quote, describing what occurs as 'systemised cruelty on a massive scale, and we only get away with it because we're prepared to look  the other way.'

If you changed the context and thought people and not pigs or chickens... and instead of factory farms thought institutions and group homes and day centres...and then asked yourself what you're prepared to turn from and look the other way...

And then later today my friend and colleague Margy Meath shares a post on Facebook...a quote by Jane Addams

"The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life'
Jane Addams

I think there's a thread runs through these ideas. At least, there is for me. Knowing what I know...what will I do differently?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

When I heard the Learn'd Astronomer...

This is for all the people with lived experience of mental health or disability or just plain outright exclusion who give up their precious time to go along to conferences and workshops and consultations and whatever and are willing to participate in the debate...

Who hear eminent this, that and the next things talking about whatever it is they talk about while all the time missing the people at the heart of their curiousity...dismissing the evidence of their pain and frustration...pursuing models of science, neurobiology and medicine...losing sight of the humanity that their models impact upon...

For those who give up their time and their energy and, on an almost daily basis, experience their heart being ripped from their chest and squeezed tightly in the hope that it will bring about some change.

I know that it must be a temptation.
I know that you must feel that you cannot bear to hear another word,
I can see how it must must push you to the edge to experience the arrogance...the dismissals...the sneering...the patronising...

And I want to find a way to stand alongside you...
But I beg you to keep on remember the stars...

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer
When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide
and measure them, 
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander' d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

Monday, May 12, 2014

My own self...but not by myself...

These are interesting times that we live in. 
So many little understanding.

I was working with a team staff and we were trying to figure out the service response to ideas like self determination, personalisation and individualised services. This team works for an organisation that is committed to striving to provide excellent services. They wanted to wrestle with the gap between some of the rhetoric that's around and the failure of most services to deliver on what they say they do. So, self determination came in for some discussion and we were trying to figure out what it means. We started with ourselves...what does it look like for us and then moved on to thinking about who or what supports us to be self- determining. 
There was a long, good and bad...some list but a few.
So we recognised that this self-determination thing actually hinged on relationship and experiences and was rarely a solitary act. Major decisions are frequently made in consultation with others. Advice is frequently sought and given and, depending on the relationship, it is sometimes given without being asked for.
It seems that we come to know ourselves best in relationship to others. We figure ourselves out in the conversations and the interactions and the falling outs and the making ups and the whispers and the shouting and the tough talk and the gentle whispers. They mould and shape us.
It seems too that knowing what we want for our lives and deciding the course we will take involves being out there and trying things out and letting things go and adventuring and sitting still and wondering and taking action.
It is hardly ever about being left to your own devices. Sinking or swimming. Waving or drowning. 
There's a delicate and gentle balance in being who you are in your own way and remaining connected and influenced and watched over.
It can never be enough to say to someone in a potentially tricky position, 'That's your choice.'

Choice. Control. Self-Determination. Self Direction. 

They often take a bit of practice. They often require just enough support.
They always need relationships and experience.

'You can't make positive choices for the rest of your life without an environment that makes those choices easy, natural, and enjoyable'

Sunday, May 11, 2014

For Mother's Day

It's Mother's Day today. At least in Australia and the USA it's Mother's Day. Not sure about anywhere else in the world. 

Truth to tell, it would be pretty hard to miss the fact. The great commercial machine revved up and got going. The Sentimental Fairy came and threw magic dust in our eyes so that we could only see mothers through a golden light and only speak of them with honey in our mouths. 

It's all good...Mothers deserve all the slippers and scented candles we can shower upon them. It's a job I was never up for. Too hard. Far too hard.
Sure...there is joy. At the same time, and with the best Mothers, there can be a complex tangle of conflicting emotions. Sometimes difficult to sustain. Often hard to do without.

My own Mum passed away almost 6 years ago. She'd been ill for a few months and I left for Australia knowing that it would likely be the last time I saw her.
Six months later I was on a plane flying back to Scotland, hoping that I would have a chance to see her again before she passed. It was one of those journeys that always seems very grown up and somehow romantic when you see it in the movies but is the worst kind of awfulness in real life. I touched down in Glasgow at 12.30pm. I immediately phoned my sister from the plane to hear that Mum had slipped away at about 8 o'clock that morning. The whole world blew apart for me. I was on a plane, in the middle of a few hundred people who were busily retrieving their carry on luggage and duty free. And I had just heard that my Mother had died. It seemed the loneliest moment of my life. I was 48 years old and my first conscious thought was, 'Who's going to look after me now?'.

After the funeral I came back to Australia. No-one here knew my Mum. No-one else was missing her here. No-one else was sad. I wasn't aware of being any more tearful than usual. Apart from a few days, I didn't even really feel that sad and goes on...

There have been a few things that have happened when I swear I have heard her voice. One day, after boiling eggs to make egg sandwiches and trying hard to boil and peel the eggs without getting that horrible black ring around the yolk (one of Mum's pet hates) I sliced open the first egg, delighted to find that I'd managed, not only to avoid the black ring but to keep the yolk just sllghtly on the creamy side and I heard her voice in my right ear saying 'Perfect'.

And then there was the weirdly inexplicable text on our wedding day...

Lots of people really liked our Mum. They talked about how kind and generous she was. Lots of people had loads of really good memories of her. Whenever I think about her, or her outstanding feature, I think about her hands. She never really liked them. She said they were too thick, too broad, too coarse. There was nothing elegant or refined about them.

In a way she was right. Her fingers were short and the veins on the backs of her hands stood out. Her palms were lined. She said that her hands were gnarled. They were not pale, white hands. Years of scalding hot water - 'How do you expect to get anything clean? That water's freezing...we'll all get polio!!' - had given her red, asbestos hands. 

Mum's hands were strong, working hands...washing...wringing out cloths and
Her hands didn't do anything fancy. She didn't sew or knit...nothing fiddly or fancy...unless you count changing babies' nappies on your lap with one hand holding their wriggling legs out of the way and the other expertly wiping, folding, pinning or taping...without dropping a single one.
Good, honest, straightforward, hardworking.

All the ways her hands were described spoke of work. Our Grannie Ritchie used to talk about her Number 9 shovels when she was giving us a clip. She definitely subscribed to the adage that if you spared the rod you spoiled the child and she was always proud of the fact that there were 5 children in her family and she could have taken us anywhere! Mostly, her hands did acts of kindness as she looked after my Dad and the 5 of us.

As time went by her hands became a bit arthritic ...the joints knobbly and painful...she said that she had an old woman's hands and yet, I'm here writing this and she never really got to be an old woman.

I came to love her hands. I quite envied them. No-one would look at my hands and say that I've worked hard. 

You can see her in our hands...I've got the arthritic lumps and bumps...Elaine has the shape of Mum's hands and some of the characteristics. My niece Niamh has also inherited them and perhaps in time she'll wish that she had Irene's long, tapering, slim, white hands or Lorraine's smooth skin and shapely fingers.

Hands - they are like a visual aid of what's in your heart. 

Our Mum thought that you shouldn't have to tell people that you love them you should just show them. I don't agree with her...she wouldn't be surprised to know that...I believe that people need to hear that they are loved...and that it needs to be said to them often otherwise it can be just too difficult to believe.

But I've come to believe this...if your hands are a visual aid of what is in your heart then I have been well loved.

It's Mother's Day today. I wish she was here.

"Thanks for everything that you have done for me, and all that you are still doing."

Saturday, May 10, 2014

What does good look like?

There's a word on my mind. An old-fashioned, Biblical word that I don't seem to hear much these days. It occupies a huge space in my mind because it denotes a quality I always aspired to and frequently failed to demonstrate. I admired the people who were thought to have it. It seemed a mark of maturity. A grown-up, careful, serious word which also carried with it a touch of mystery. 

The word is discernment.

As I've been thinking about the word and this post I've engaged in the time-honoured practice of googling for definitions. At least 90% of the definitions I've found relate discernment to faith and the religious life. I'm particularly struck by this definition,

'Discernment is the trait or process of exhibiting keen insight and good is the ability to see, find and recognize the truth and then know what to do with it. A lack of it has resulted in continuous amounts of false teaching, foolish fads, experiential thrill seeking and distracting doctrine... '

I like the point that it makes about doing something with the truth when you see, find and recognise it; understanding translated to action.

So, why am I thinking so much about discernment?

I just got back from a trip to San Diego where I was invited to be a key note speaker at the annual conference of the Californian Supported Living Network. It was a big deal for me, not just because it's like, totes amazing, man, to have the opportunity to travel as part of my work but to travel the place that, early in my career was the pioneering place...a massive honour and opportunity for me. Like, super far out...
I stayed with the gorgeous Beth Gallagher and her family and completely appreciated their generous hospitality and kindness. Meeting her team at Lifeworks was encouraging. It was so great to see a team trying to put into practice all the things they talk about; celebrating what goes well and sucking all the learning out of the things that don't go according to plan.

I've never been to the USA before...Canada but not America. I was looking forward to the experience and it didn't let me down in anyway. San Diego is a beautiful city. It reminds me of Perth: all the advantages of a big city but still feeling liveable. Beautiful place...wonderful weather...different enough to be interesting but not so different that I was lost and overwhelmed. 

There's something about West Coast people I really like. Sweeping generalisation coming up, I know, but there's an attitude on the West Coast. It's laid back, relaxed, gentle, open. It's one of the things that drew me to Perth. I really liked the people I was meeting. The same thing was true in San Diego, perhaps even more so. For all the 'have a nice day!'s I was hearing, and expecting to find phoney, I just never caught that hollow ring. I met all sorts of people; encountered all kinds of family configurations; celebrated diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, religious and political affiliation. I was struck by a genuine openness and acceptance. I'm sure everyone has their prejudices but  the desire to be open and accepting was there. Everything was cool...everyone was awesome.

The presentations came and went at the conference. Everyone like totally hit it out of the park...they were awesome and we loved them. Everyone. All good. All awesome. Every comment and appreciation heartfelt. The love was real.

And now I'm thinking about discernment. Because, at the risk of sounding...whatever it is I wasn't all awesome. In fact, lots of it was completely average and some of it was garbage...there...I've said it...
And not just in San Diego...not just at the conference but here in Perth and around Australia...I hear it in the UK as well...
(I'm not going to post a list here but come and talk to me and I'll give you examples of what I mean)

I would love to just surrender to the power of awesome and not have to think so hard about some of the stuff that passes as life and work...(is there a difference?)

I want to absolutely appreciate people's efforts and commitment...their outputs are often astonishing...their outcomes lead me to suspect that people are working on the brick...

I keep finding myself in situations where people have no filter or framework for measuring one thing against another and deciding if it's good. They seem to have nothing external they can refer to to act as a guide - or maybe they do have it but don't feel like they have permission to use it.

In our work we have people who have all sorts of experiences - the people being supported and the supporters. Not all of them good, positive, healthy experiences. People are acting them out and people are working them out...except it's the same thing really, just one group get paid for it. When all of that woundedness and hurt and anger and frustration and lack of love and understanding and poor choices...when all of that swirls around then you can be sure that it can be hard to think straight, to know which way is up, to know the right thing to do. 
The more I write about this the more there is to write...and I might have a go at some of that in subsequent blogs when I've given it a bit more thought and maybe heard from some people about what they think of this...
I truly believe that there are times when we need something outside of ourselves to give us clues about what to do next. Something that has some heft, that's stood the test of time and practice. Not some abstract theory, full of big words but something infinitely practical...not simple but certainly clear. Something that's not a guarantee of doing the right thing but which, if we apply it, might make it more likely that a right and good thing happens and less likely that we simply repeat our old patterns of oppression and discrimination.

I believe that there are some ideas around that really fit the bill...Wolfensberger's ideas...not necessarily his writing because, on occasion, what my Dad would have called a 'Philadelphia Lawyer' is required to understand what's going on...John O'Brien's 5 Service Accomplishments and the 5 Valued Experiences and anything else John O'Brien thinks about or writes - you may not see the application immediately but if you live with the words and ideas they will bear fruit...anything written by Michael Kendrick, John Armstrong and Kristjana Kristiansen...Simon Duffy writing about Citizenship...the Values of Inclusion are useful too ( I didn't write them so I feel OK about mentioning them here). There are lots of other people that I find helpful but without these folks I would have no content in what I do.

So...enough of this...I started talking about discernment - 'the ability to see, find and recognise truth...'. It's not the same as some sort of magical thinking. Awareness, knowledge and understanding lead to discernment. If we stop learning, if we fall asleep, we're in trouble...

I feel that it's time to go back to our books...not simply doing in order to justify our wages...but thinking...discerning as we go...adding value to our work.

And a final thought...

To think is excellent;
To pray is better;
To love is everything

Elisabeth Leseur

Friday, April 4, 2014

There's more to life than this...

I did some exciting work to day. 

There have been some changes around funding for young people moving from school into adult life. Decisions about funding will be influenced by the young person having a plan for their future.With this in mind and with the young people from the leaving classes of 2 or 3 of the local schools and a group of Local Area Co-ordinators from the Northern Suburbs of Perth we embarked on a planning process called 'Moving On'. 

The idea was to build up a picture of the participants; learn something about how they saw themselves; pay attention to their gifts and dreams and gather some clues about the kinds of things we needed to work on to prepare them for leaving school. We would then take time to work on some of the practical details of what it would take for the young person to experience the good things of life.

We did this in 2 sessions with a fortnight in between the sessions to give the young people time to think between sessions. On the 2nd day we invited their parents to join us  and think about how they could help to support their son or daughter's aspirations for the future.

The first session was just a joy to be part of. The young people were making bold and audacious statements about how they saw themselves, free of the limitations that the label of 'disability' imposed on their lives. They thought about their identity, their gifts, their dreams for a good life. They were spectacular; throwing themselves into the tasks with gusto and imagining fabulously ordinary, teenage things for their lives...

Homes. Jobs. Relationships. 

It was great to be part of it. 

I also did some deeply upsetting work today.

Their families came along on for the next session which was today.

I had very intentionally made a place for families. I believe in the natural authority of families...I believe that no-one gets through life on their own and that it makes more sense to work within the system that is the family than to treat families as some kind of irrelevance to a person's situation. I believe that, by and large, no-one loves more than a family...that families are in for the long haul...that families 'know stuff' about people that it would take a well-meaning human services professional years to learn...I. Believe. In. Families.


I know that living in a family can be difficult. I know that it is often difficult for family members to give up having their say in people's lives and letting them live the life they choose. I know that being different from everyone else in your family can be tricky ( and I'm also sure that it is tricky to live with other people's differences). I know that it can be hard to escape from your family's experiences and perceptions of you - a clean slate is not often a gift shared by family members.

I believe that there is nowhere quite like a family for being loved...and being misunderstood.

When families came along to the session today I saw all of the above being played out. The young people got shy and reluctant to share what they were thinking. Families got into command and control mode and insisted on appropriate behaviour. They declared that there were no second chances for children who could not behave appropriately (really?). They argued for special and segregated and the merits of being with their own kind. They embarrassed, emasculated and infantilised young men who were in 'showing off to the ladies' form. They burst the bubbles of young women who dreamed of modelling careers or a lifetime at the beck and call of a boy band. 

They seemed to have lost sight of their own teenage hopes and dreams and had forgotten that there was more to life than clean bedrooms, appropriate behaviour and staying at home with Mum and Dad.

I don't believe that they did it out of malice. I don't think that they take their young people seriously enough as people to think that there was a problem.

I think that many of their reactions spring from that complex place of love and fear...

Huge love for this young man or woman...heartbreakingly intense, terrifying in its vulnerability...profound in its joy... 

And at the same time...

Visceral, sweaty, heart pounding, screaming, animal fear...too frightening to face...fed daily by stories and experiences that confirm the dangerous nature of the world we live in and the communities we inhabit. Petrifying fear for the future; turning opportunities to stone and eventually constricting hearts so that they can only beat but cannot feel.

Maybe I'm being melodramatic here, but it felt today as if there was a great battle going on. It felt if the young people were destined to live where it was always Winter but never Christmas, unless someone understood that there was some deeper magic that could be worked and believed that it might be possible to unwrap the gifts that these young people are and make a celebration of them in our lives and communities.

My strong belief is that the deeper magic is Inclusion...'the means by which we set the stage for people to be successful together' (Kendrick)...'People being at ease in the presence of difference' (Ritchie)

I'm not sure about how to go forward with families except maybe slowly and kindly...I don't know what to think about it...

I just can't shake the feeling that we've got to do better...I've got to do better.

We've got to do better...we have wasted too much money...too much time...and we are wasting too many lives...