We Had the Same Rainbow Sneakers

70s Rainbow Sneakers
70s Rainbow Sneakers

In the mid to late 70’s it was really “in” for girls to have Nike-like sneakers with rainbow stripes on the sides.  In my last post I talked about how I am nothing more than anyone sitting on the couch across from me.  This fact hit me square in my brain and heart all at once on a particular day at work, early in my career.

As a brand new Social Worker for the Department of Social Services, with not even two full months of experience behind me, based on urgent circumstances, I was required to go to the home of a young mother and father, with the police and remove their newborn and the baby’s 2 year old sibling.

In the months and years to follow there was a great deal of chaos and pain, from domestic violence, drugs and everything in between including another infant removed from this mother a few days after birth.  I spent countless hours with this mother and father, much more with the mother.  I brought her children to her every week for supervised visits, sat with her (but in opposition to her) at court every 3 months for the Judge to review the case, and took many calls from her.  Her emotions were very frequently out of control, between her mental health diagnosis and drug abuse.    On one occasion I found myself sneaking out of the crossfire between her and her boyfriend whipping crack pipes at each other; very chaotic indeed!

Her life was extremely turbulent and dangerous and she subsequently lost each and every one of the nine children she gave birth to.  She was someone who was usually completely out of control.  Anyone who knew her could easily tell that she was not capable of caring for a child.  Her relationships with other adults and her children were very disturbed.  Of course, there were moments that seemed very sincere and where a glimpse of “normal” could be seen.  Not only did I learn a great deal from her, but I liked her very much. And even though she hated me so often, I think she really liked me too.

On this one particular day, she and I were sitting in her house, just the two of us.  Somehow, I was given permission to look through the photo album on her coffee table.  As I turned though the pages I came to a photo of her.  She was at a school, or town ball field, probably 10 years old, wearing her softball team hat, with the letter of her town on the front, in her uniform and wearing nike-like rainbow sneakers.  I was frozen!  Racing through my mind was the simple fact that (she and I were very close in age), there is a photo album in my family home, with a picture of me, in my softball uniform, with my letter hat and rainbow sneakers!

I was dumbfounded!  “She and I are the same.  I could be her.  She could be me.”

As I thought deeply about this after leaving her home that day, I thought, “What’s the difference between she and I?”  Well, not that I didn’t experience hardship, betrayal and other challenges growing up, but the difference, I wasn’t being raped nightly by my father, with my mother standing by helplessly.  I wasn’t experiencing my father beating my mother up at least once a week.  I wasn’t being manipulated by my mother hating me one day and “loving” me the next.  Yes, by 10 years old she had suffered atrocities under the care of her mother and father that by 10 years old I didn’t even know existed.

This is not to say that she should be excused from abusing and neglecting her own children, doing drugs, violence and other criminal acts.  There certainly is consequence.  Losing your children and eventually ending up in long-term housing for the homeless/mentally ill is pretty significant.

However, when you are looking on at another mother, saying, “I could never do that to my children!” or “No way! Never!” just pause for a moment and think, “Was she dealt a different hand than me?”

This is also not to say that judgment is wrong.  This woman was certainly judged, and thankfully so for her children’s sake.  Without judgment, known dangers abound.  Without judgment these children may have died.  But when you judge, pause for a moment and think, “Is it my place to judge this person, or do the proper authorities have that covered?”  Pause for a moment and consider, are you judging this person for the purpose of condemning them?  Do you seek to criticize or make yourself bigger and better in comparison to them?

Or are you judging them in order to identify a problem.

Condemnation or identification?

Identification is necessary.  When we don’t identify anything as good or bad we have no standard, we have no guidepost, no direction for our children.

When Uncle Henry shows up at every family event drunk, there is a judgment to be made.  You could condemn him to your children, “Uncle Henry is a drunk.  Stay away from him.  He’s disgusting!  What a loser! Don’t go near him!”  Or you could identify him to your children, “Uncle Henry has a problem with alcohol.  We love all of our family members but Uncle Henry is making really bad decisions.  Because of his bad decisions, it’s not safe for you to be around him.  Alcohol makes people behave in ways that they wouldn’t usually do when they are not drinking it.”  Judgment for the purpose of identification is necessary.

*Details that might identify a former client are intentionally omitted or changed in order to protect confidentiality.

Are You Someone’s Neighbor?

Linda and I around 1990
Linda and I around 1990

Are You Someone’s Neighbor?

When I was born, I was given the blessing of wonderful neighbors.  They were my grandparents’ age and their names were Linda and Louis.  They lived a few houses down on the same side of the street and they loved me, and my brother and mother.

I spent many days as a little girl with Linda and Louis.  Though I must have been very young, I remember spending a lot of time on Louis’ lap.  He smoked a cigar and I am told that many times I came home smelling like his cigar.  I didn’t mind at all and no one else seemed to either.  My father was not there for me and the time with Louis was more valuable that I could have ever known.

I remember calling my Mom and asking if I could sleep over.  She would ask where I was going to sleep and I would tell her, “In Linda’s bed.” (Many couples slept in separate twin beds then.)  She would ask, “Where is Linda going to sleep?” and I would tell her, “In the ‘guestes’ room.”  Other times, I would pack my suitcase from home and my Mom would stand outside of our house and Linda would stand outside of her house and they would watch me walk from one to the other.

Many mornings I went with Linda and her friend Gertrude (I can’t remember if Louis came with us), for a “coffee break.”  We would get in the car, with me sitting on the arm rest, between the driver and passenger, so I could see better (no seat belts then).  We would drive to Howard Johnson’s (currently The Lost Dog in Orleans) and I would have something like a muffin and juice.  Sometimes they bought me a little toy after (but I think my Mom put a stop to that after too many toys).

I have so many memories that are like treasures to me.  Louis accompanied me to an occasional Father/daughter event.  I watched the “Soaps” with Linda.  Linda knit me many adorable clothes.  She took me for walks on the beach and I would jump the railroad ties.  They taught me about the birds that came to the bird feeder and helped me with a school report on a chickadee.  They told me many things about how to be and how not to be.  Linda gave me important tips about being a lady.

They were there in hard times as well.  When my father broke his arm in a nearby house, because he had had too much to drink and/or the house that he was doing construction at had a wobbly front step, I was just a little girl and my brother was very young as well.  We knew to lead him right across the street to Linda and Louis’ house and they would help us.  When I took a terrible fall on my lime-green banana bike, a neighborhood boy helped me get to Linda and Louis’ house where they helped me with my many bad wounds until my Mom arrived.  And when I fell on a deck and filled both hands with dozens of splinters, it was Louis who meticulously and as gently as he could, removed each one.  Louis was always my splinter-taker-outer and I trusted him completely.  And it was Linda, who when it was all over, lovingly saw my silent pain and told me that I could cry.  There are so many other memories that I cherish.

With Linda and Louis there was never a harsh word, never a cross look, never anything but gentleness, love, protection and comfort.

My family moved when I was 10 years old.  The saddest part about moving was losing my neighbors.  Maybe a year or two later, when my Mom picked me up at school, she told me that Louis had gone out   to his back deck to shovel snow, had a heart attack and died.  Not too long after that, Linda moved to Florida.

It’s amazing what love can do!  Children don’t know what benefits they are getting by being loved, as I didn’t know what I was getting from their love.  Love is about the greatest gift we can give one another.  In fact, from scripture we hear;

“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” Matthew 22:37-40.

One of the definitions of “neighbor” is “a fellow human being.”

When I put them together, I hear that it is of supreme importance to love fellow human beings.  We are bombarded with bad news these days; of instances of hate and violence and evil.  I find myself becoming saturated with all of it, like a sponge that cannot hold any more water.  When we watch the media and hear the stories, it’s like this evil has so much power. Then we hear about the government, and think, the government has so much power; trying to convince us that by changing laws and managing society that our little children and loved ones will be protected.  But really, the evil doesn’t have the power. The government doesn’t have the power.  THE PEOPLE HAVE THE POWER!  The power is in the LOVE.  The healing is in the LOVE.  The change is in the LOVE.  And the author and creator of love, is God, who wants to prosper us and not harm us.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. – Jeremiah 29:11

The influence you have as a neighbor, whether to someone next door, a Facebook friend, or someone across the world, when you LOVE them, is more powerful than I think we will ever even know.

I learned this week that my dear neighbor Linda died recently.  She lived to 105 years!  She was neighbor to many and I trust that Our Lord called to her, having prepared a place for her to continue to shower others with her love.  She is the quintessential neighbor and I have been blessed.  Linda and Louis meant so much to our family.