Biology, Chemistry, History…Family

Unprotected ultimately about family, and a young woman’s discovery that there are all kinds of family and many places that can be called home.

–from the back cover of unprotected

I wrote unprotected for many reasons–to vent about my job, to explain child protection, to do something creative–but above all I wanted to explore the meaning of family.

Family is biology–similar hair texture, body types, and tendency toward shyness or humor.  That familiar feeling that comes from looking into someone’s face and seeing your own.

Family is more than biology…it is history and chemistry too.

Family is shared experiences…eating Grandma Sabby’s molasses cookies with lemon frosting for breakfast…Grandma knew that her breakfast table was for anyone who might stop by, not just the relatives.

Family is that intangible connection, the feeling that comes in friendship when we think the same way, laugh at the same jokes, shop for the same boots just a half a size apart.    It is sharing a dorm floor and waiting for each other for dinner every day, even though guys don’t really do that.

Family is green bean hot dish, sunset pontoon rides, traveling across the state just to share the drive.

Family is shared pain, or joy, or grief.  It is lasagnas in the freezer, whoops of glee in the hallways, and tears at the funeral.

Family is caramel sundaes, Mahjongg with home health aides, flying in from New York because it’s important to be there.

Family is covering at work, praying every night, finding a way to bring out a smile.

Family is choice, effort, commitment, and promise.   It is pain, tension, and forgiveness.  It is security, safety, and relief.

Family is the reason that anything else on this earth counts at all.

And on this holiday when I am acutely aware of what I have lost, I am grateful that I have a family that is bigger and stronger than I ever knew.

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Homeostasis

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves…”         —Anatole France

 “Well it’s time to change, when it’s time to change.”       —Peter Brady

 I have felt for the past year that the earth is shifting under my feet.  Much of my stability has crumbled.    My life is in a period of radical change.

And I don’t like it.

Humans seek out balance:  homeostasis.   It is the body’s ability to maintain equilibrium in such base functions as regulating temperature, and in such complexities as mood and emotion.

I would like some balance in my work life, where a well-intentioned new administration is turning our basic ways of operating so far upside down that I fear that there may be a coup.

I would like some balance in my home life, where my oldest daughter is graduating in the spring and will leave an Abby-sized hole in our house.

I would like some balance in my heart, where the loss of my mom leaves a constant stinging ache that feels like it only gets bigger the longer she has been gone.

The word homeostasis literally means, “to stand still.”     Many days I would love to yell “freeze!” like my life is a giant game of Freeze Tag.    I would look around at all the frozen players—especially my kids at their exact, present ages–for a long time, and then I would probably find a quiet corner where I could have a little snack and a nice long nap.

One of the ironies of my need to stand still is that the very nature of social work is to expect others to change.    I am a full time Change Facilitator.    I create plans with my clients to help them walk step by step through the process of change.   We talk about how change takes time, and how they will need support.    I validate how hard it is, but I remind them of the consequences of doing nothing.    And then I go back to my desk and find an email about the new way I’m expected to do my schedule, and I’m ready to explode.

As I was writing unprotected, Amanda started to get on my nerves.    She was starting to feel whiney and victimy, and I knew that she needed to evolve.    It wouldn’t have been a good story without the main character experiencing some sort of personal growth.

I suppose I can grow.    I’m guessing I will adjust to Abby not being at home anymore, and I might even enjoy our more adult relationship.     At work, I am starting to shake off the superficial changes while pushing back against the adjustments that don’t make sense.   And if I’m really looking for some personal growth, I may decide to recognize that all the newness at work isn’t inherently wrong just because it’s different.    Time will tell about that.

I’m told that I will adjust to the loss of my mom, too.    I honestly have no idea how I will find balance without her, but people find a way, and I know I will too.     Right now my idea of personal growth means taking a breath, looking around at what I have, and standing gratefully still.

Fuzziness

The lines in my life are blurred. I live in the same community where I have been a child protection social worker for the past 18 years, which means that I cross paths with my clients nearly every day. I’m grateful that commute is 3 minutes, and if my kids need anything I can be at their schools in ten minutes on most days.

But living where I work means that I see my clients at the grocery store, in the movie theater, and at restaurants. My kids have unknowingly sat next to my client’s children in school and have played against them in their sports.

My clients and I sometimes talk about what we will do if we pass each other at Target. Usually they say hello, but some prefer to look away. I have had some do a double take when we pass in the aisles at Walmart and I’m in a ponytail and sweats, picking up cleaning supplies for a lazy day when I wasn’t supposed to see anyone.

Since my book was published, the boundaries in my life have gotten even fuzzier. Recently I was promoting my book at a Barnes and Noble store in Mankato, two hours from where I live. In addition to family and friends who stopped by, I saw friends I hadn’t seen since high school, and social workers with whom I currently share cases. And my small world got even smaller when a group of people asked about my book, and then hearing where I was from, they asked my advice about a family member who lives in a risky situation in my county. I had to put my social worker hat back on to answer their questions, and when we were done talking they left with a copy of my book. At my next promotional event in Duluth, I will be signing books at the Barnes and Noble during their book drive, which will benefit Northwoods Children’s Center, an agency I have worked with repeatedly.

The lines have even become blurry in my own head. Now that I have started my second book, I am spending a fair amount of time trying to think like my characters so I can get their dialogue right. I have found myself in my staff meetings wondering what my characters would think of what my coworkers are saying, and vice versa. I have considered how Leah, the main character in book 2, would handle the current cases I have. And I picture my characters and my coworkers discussing families, real and fictional, and figuring out what to do next.

Social workers are encouraged to avoid dual roles whenever possible, but life is messy. I can’t help that my kids go to school with my clients, or that somehow in another town I can cross paths with people who are worried about their family members in my county. But it leaves me feeling that I’m never really off duty. There’s little anonymity in small towns to begin with, so I know I need to watch myself and make sure I don’t say or do something that I wouldn’t want to have to explain later.

The blessing of feeling on duty all the time is that I have no choice but to just be myself wherever I am. I can’t be too haughty with my clients about the challenges of raising children when I have had to carry my three year old out of Walmart kicking and screaming. And with all the time that my characters spend in my head, my hope is that they feel as real to my readers as they do to me.

Unprotected can be purchased at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and at various local stores including Loons and Ladyslippers in Red Wing and Cover to Cover in Brookings. Thank you for your support!