Monday, December 5, 2016

Convos with Hadley, my Goddaughter!

I'm overdue for a post, I know. I didn't keep to my monthly commitment and I'm sure I am not the only one who had a crazy November so I won't use that as an excuse. I'll just promise you that there are pictures of the most perfect baby in this post and hope that you will forgive me.

My November started out in the most wonderful way possible. I got home after a long day of both school and work to a little envelope on my bed. It was addressed to me in Kelley's unmistakable handwriting. I immediately tried to remember what gift I had given her that warranted a thank you (Kelley has always been on top of thank you notes). Little did I know that inside the envelope was a gift for me! Hadley personally asked me to be her Godmother! I immediately started crying, with no one to hug because it was close to midnight and my parents were long asleep.

I am not a big crier, but this little girl has my heart. Since our alone time in the NICU, while Kelley and Matt caught up on sleep, to the conversations we've had snuggling on the couch, I have tried and failed to convey how much love I have for her. Hadley will never know, but I won't stop trying to tell her what she means to me, her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles (both literal and figurative). It is my privilege to be her godmother and make sure that not a day goes by where she doesn't know she is loved.

Two days later, I woke up in a panic. I read my CNN updates and I immediately thought of my sweet Goddaughter. I went into my parent's room and cried in my mother's arms because I didn't know what else to do. I, along with many other men and women, walked through that day numb to whatever came our way.

A month later, I realize that having Trump as president is our new reality as a country. It has been a rough month, but I came across a quote that stuck with me. I have shared it on Facebook and with friends and family and received mixed feedback.

"It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences." -Audre Lorde

I want to be clear in saying that I do not condone, accept or celebrate any act of oppression, hate or bigotry. This quote, however, helps me to realize that a person who is different or opposite of me does not necessarily approve of those things either. Sure, there are racists and bigots out there. Believe me, I am working damn hard to decrease the amount of ignorance in the world, but I don't want to condone hate or exclusion on my end because of what a person calls themselves. I don't want Hadley to grow up thinking that because a person is opposite of her, they are bad or wrong.

I had a talk with Hadley the other day about God. Not the first, and most certainly not the last. I talked about how God created her exactly how He imagined, and that He has plans for her that she, nor I, know about. I encouraged her to wake up every morning, thanking God for another day in His creation, just as I do.

I don't know what the future holds for my dear Goddaughter, but I do know that it will be filled with love and many more conversations. I admit, these last few months the conversations have been a little one-sided, so I cannot wait to hear her input in the future.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Learning to Thaw

In keeping with my commitment to post monthly, I want to post some of a personal essay I wrote for my Domestic Social and Economic Development Policy class. The prompt was simple: write about the Black Lives Matter Movement. I wrote it as if I was writing a blog post, and it ended up not being so bad. It doesn't have any explicit reference to my faith, but I'm realizing now  that my faith doesn't have to be explicit in my thoughts and actions. God is in all that I think and do. Enjoy.

    I am a proud Saint Louisan. Or at least I thought I was until August 2014, when I learned there were pockets of St. Louis that I knew close to nothing about. Sure, I had a basic understanding of my hometown. I’m technically from St. Louis County and growing up, there were only a few places in the city my parents allowed me to go to. The ‘city’ was really only worth going to for a baseball game, Soulard for the farmer’s market, and University City was okay if I was home before dark. I knew some of my high school classmates were bussed in from the city, but I had no idea where from and it never crossed my mind to ask.

In 2008, when I was a sophomore, Charles “Cookie” Thornton shot and killed five people in a town hall meeting, before being fatally shot himself. I woke up to the news that among others, a classmate of mine lost her mother, an officer I worked with in the past was killed outside the building and our mayor was in critical condition. I went to school, but quickly realized there would be no academic education that day. I did learn, however, that racial tensions run deep in our quaint little town of Kirkwood and the surrounding area. It was the first time I realized that my town needed to hear that Black lives matter.

I traveled south for college where it was easy to point out racist comments, ideology and practices. I boasted that I was from a much more diverse city.  I majored African and African American Studies to make sure no one could call me ignorant to our country’s history. I felt like I could be a part of tough conversations surrounding race, and knew these conversations were not something to shy away from. If we were going to improve as a country, we had to have these conversations. I was looking at the big picture, but hadn’t applied this to my hometown. I was still a proud St. Louisan.

August 9, 2014 was the first time I was scared to tell people I was from St. Louis, not because of the shooting, but because I had no idea where Ferguson was on the map. For the first time I felt like I knew nothing about my city. Two weeks later, I left for a volunteer year in Philadelphia. I left the 24-hour news coverage on channel five. I left the nightly vigils and confusion. I was able to leave.

When I landed in Philadelphia I felt both relief and anxiety. Stepping off the plane, I watched the news that the rest of the country saw, not the local news. I saw what was being included and knew what was being left out. All of a sudden, I became the spokesperson for St. Louis for the 30 people I worked with. I tried my hardest to sell them on the idea that despite what was going on, St. Louis was still a great place. I made sure to mention that Ferguson is a fraction of the larger St. Louis area. I still wanted to be proud of the city that I just left.

Then I came back. I came back after the jury chose not to indict Darren Wilson. I came back after the Black Lives Matter Movement arrived in St. Louis. I was home to recognize the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death and I happen to be in a racial justice training at the time. It was a hard homecoming. I was coming back to a city that I wasn’t truly proud of, but I didn’t want to admit it. I wanted so badly to erase the racist history of St. Louis, at the same time jump on board with the Black Lives Matter Movement. I wanted to take what I learned in my undergraduate classes and explain to people that not all racism is overt, but I was frozen. I was frozen with the fear of not having a place in the Movement. I still am.

In that same racial justice training, I was confronted with my Whiteness. I understand that People of Color and Native People face both explicit racism and systematic oppression that I will never have to experience. I understand that changes need to be made not just on the personal level, but at the policy level as well. What I could not grasp during that training, and what I have been working on for the last year, is how to both own my Whiteness and contribute to the Movement.

The Black Lives Matter Movement existed before Michael Brown’s death and grew larger after the jury’s decision not to indict. It exists beyond St. Louis City and County limits. I know this, however, St. Louis is the lens through which I see the Movement. It is where I can reasonably participate, more than just the discussions in an academic setting. Yet, I admit, I haven’t done much.

I am frozen because I don’t know what my role is. I left St. Louis at one of the most crucial times to stay, to raise awareness and fight for change. I was able to leave, not just geographically, but because of my Whiteness. I am able to turn off the news and I don’t have to fear for my life when I am pulled over for speeding or a stalled car. I have stood in solidarity for pictures and posted on Facebook that Black Lives Matter and that we need to stop killing our neighbors, but it does not feel like enough. At the end of the day, I go home and choose what news I want to see or read, while my Black peers are not able to get away from it. It is their reality, not mine.

In another racial justice training, the facilitator used a metaphor. She said the fight for social change is like rowing a boat. Often, White people stand at the shore and yell commands or provide ‘encouragement’ to the Black people in the boat doing the work. Instead, we need to swim out to the boat, climb on board and start rowing. I struggle with this metaphor because, on one hand, it makes perfect sense. On the other, I wonder how I can get on board without taking someone else’s seat. I know that White people have a place in fighting for racial justice, but I am deathly afraid of looking like the White Savior. This may be my own insecurity or an excuse for my lack of involvement, but it is where I currently stand in the Movement. I want to figure out how to use my voice, my privilege, to amplify the voice of others.

Hope is not lost, though. In trying to move from my frozen state, I’m realizing I do not have to write a law or make a speech to have an impact.  Being a White person involved in the Black Lives Matter Movement does not automatically make me a White Savior. Actions of a White Savior are ones that highlight their own hard work and sacrifice. I have never enjoyed the spotlight and that won’t change now. Moving forward, I am starting to see the impact of simple conversations with neighbors, or what it means to share a post on Facebook. Sure, these are small steps, but they are steps nonetheless.

It is an interesting time to be a St. Louisan right now. More than two years after the killing of Michael Brown it feels like we’ve made little progress. The media has moved on from Ferguson to the next terrible killing, the next poor family, the next victim. The Department of Justice has performed an investigation but significant changes are not yet apparent. I cannot say I’m a proud St. Louisan at this point, but I’m not giving up on my city either. The only way St. Louis can improve its history of terrible race relations is if we bring it up from under the rug and start talking, which is why I plan to stay here for a while. My contributions may not be officially related to the Black Lives Matter Movement, but they are keeping the conversation going. Through my education at Washington University, personal reflection, and discussions with friends and colleagues, I am finally thawing from my frozen state, and ready to do more.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Brave to be an American

There's a lot going on in our country right now, isn't there? Is it just me or do other's feel like an election year lasts 10 times longer than a regular year? I can't say I am proud of everything going on and I am still trying to figure out where I stand on certain events. Rather than write a blog about the confusion of what it is to be an American today, I am going to talk about bravery.

My practicum is at the International Institute of St. Louis this semester, where newly settled refugees come for assistance in all areas of life, from health and housing assistance to employment and education. It has been around since 1919 and does incredible work. I know that's a pretty broad statement, so if you want to learn more let's grab a coffee and chat about it!

Anyway, last week I was able to sit in on a citizenship ceremony for 39 new Americans. Those who know me well know I don't get emotional about much, except for Hadley Marie, who moved me to tears the first time I saw her perfect face, and the movie Remember the Titans-I cry during the final scene every time. Last week, however, as the court choir sang America The Beautiful and the 39 new Americans stood up to say their names, where they were from, and how long they've been in the States, I could've used a tissue.

I sat there in almost disbelief. In a time where certain politicians and media personnel are telling citizens who are unhappy with their country to leave and want to place restrictions on entire ethnic and religious groups from entering the country, they still wanted to call America home. They believe in the freedoms promised in our Constitution and believe in the opportunity for success.

I sat in disbelief not because I think those 39 people are fools, but because they reassured me. It has been so easy to complain about the state of our country. So easy to say I'm turning in my passport if Trump gets elected.  These 39 people are brave. They know the power of their vote and their voice. They acted as a reminder not to wallow in my own disbelief that our country can't change because, for them, it has to. It has to be better because they gave up everything to put their hand on their heart and say the Pledge of Allegiance to The US.

Not every person standing at the ceremony last week was a refugee or came from a Third World country, but every person standing gave up citizenship from another country. They believe so much in what the American flag stands for, that they held it proudly with their certificate of citizenship in a picture.

This post isn't without its concerns. I struggle with the idea that the American flag and the Constitution carry the same meaning for everyone in this country and abroad. I have seen people strive for the American Dream and are heartbroken to discover inequality in our country. I still say that I'll turn in my passport if Trump is elected, but I am encouraged by those 39 people to keep working. To keep pursuing a career where I can make new Americans feel welcome. To keep educating others of the benefits to welcoming new citizens. To keep exploring better ways to do certain things I was once sure of to better serve those around me.

I am so proud of those 39 people I never met. They'll never know who I am, but I hope my applause from the balcony of the room meant something to them that day. I hope they realize just how brave they are to embark on a new life as an American.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Self-Care, Don't Care

I have no idea where the summer went. None. I am back in the thick of training for my fellowship with Residential Life at WashU and soon enough I will be back in the classroom for one last year of classes before you can call me Abby MacDonald, Master of Social Work!

Yesterday, we had one of many tough conversations surrounding racial justice: how to discuss the negative racial narratives in today's society and share counter-narratives to influence social change. During a time when many people feel uncomfortable discussing race and how it impacts the way an individual moves through life, Res Life has been clear about the need to have tough conversations. The talk yesterday shined a light on a lot, and while we didn't solve all the world's problems, or come up with a solution for institutional racism (which I think would solve MANY of the world's problems), it got everyone at the table thinking.

I've written about the need for self-care on this blog before and last night, I listened to my own advice.  I lit a lavender (supposedly calming?) candle and got back on my yoga mat. Normally I watch a video at home as a guide, but this time I just did what felt right. I realized I am not at all ready to lead a class, but I listened to what my body needed which was a lot more difficult than anticipated.

I love the fact that I can do yoga at home for many reasons: 1. It's free. 2. I can do it in my sports bra and underwear should I choose to (sorry if that was too much information). 3. If I want to do some yoga at 2:30 in the morning, I can. I haven't ever done that, but should I find the need, I can. 4. When I make a mistake, or take a risk and fall on my face, no one is there to laugh. Today, though, I put some pants on and went to a yoga class at the local YMCA. I love my Y because I am usually the youngest person in the room so I don't feel intimidated or judged. Nor do I feel the need to compare myself to the 70 year old man wearing khakis on a treadmill.*

Getting on the yoga mat has always been both a challenge and a blessing for me. It forces me to concentrate on my breathing, an intention, and on balance. I often look at yoga as a connection to my faith. Many of my intentions are just prayers to God. It is where I can be fully present and contemplate what His plans are for me. Today, as I packed my mat and waterbottle for a class, I realized that not only is my personal time with yoga a reflection of my faith, but going to a class with a teacher is comparable to heading to church.

I love going to church with my parents and family each week. I'll admit there are more days where I choose sleep over church, but each time I return I am reminded why it is worth going. As a good Augustinian alum, I go for the community. I know that my faith is my own journey and the church is a reflection of a man-made religion, but I discovered during my volunteer year that immersing oneself in a community directed towards the same end goal-to be closer to God, can strengthen faith.

I went into this class today pretty confident. I knew how to do the balance poses, I could touch the ground with straight legs, and I could anticipate the next pose the teacher would ask of us. Toward the end, I didn't really feel like I was pushed very much. I thought I would just go home and work on some other poses. Then a funny thing happened. As I was rolling up my mat, post-namaste, I realized my legs felt well stretched, my body was calm and my arms felt a little noodle-y. The class had an impact on me, even though I thought I was above it.

All this work I do on my own, be it on the mat or for my faith, can only take me so far. I eventually need to find a class or a church to find inspiration or comfort in the community. Even if I think I'm better than my classmates or stronger in my faith than those around me, I am learning. I am improving as long as I push myself to do so. It takes an effort on my end to go to that class or get out of my pjs on Sunday and go to church, but I am reminded time and time again, that I still have plenty of work to do.

I am writing this out so that everyone reading can hold me accountable. I am ashamed of how little I blogged last year, especially since it is one of my favorite self-care activities. My goal for this year is to post once a month. I have put a reminder on my calendar for the 25th of every month to write. Feel free to publicly humiliate me if you do not see any posts for more than a month at a time.

*Sorry if you're a 70 year old man wearing khakis at the gym. I applaud your determination to stay fit, just not your outfit choice.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

How I really feel about April

I got a not so subtle hint from my mom that it is time for a new post on here, so here it goes.

Everyone who has asked me how I'm doing lately has gotten the same response-I hate April. I can't remember the last time I looked back and thought "man, that was a good month." Most Aprils I've been in school and last year was a really long April because my grandmother was sick. This year the month seemed to start a few weeks early. Individual and Group projects are picking up (thank God for good group members this time around) and the weekend nights are getting longer-not because I'm out with friends, but because I'm drinking coffee at 9pm and staring at the page count on my papers.

Enough of the Debbie Downer talk, though. What's strange is that I'm really happy. I'm increasingly stressed, but loving what I am doing. I know my last post was about the overwhelming effect stress has had on me, so this one will hopefully be a little more encouraging.

I LOVE my practicum. Working in the legal realm wasn't ever something I considered, but I am seeing through practicum and through my classes, that real change has to come from the policy level. I considered for a brief period of time getting a J.D./MSW but I think I am getting enough with my MSW at this point to navigate the legal world. I did just find out that WashU is offering a new 24 credit Master of Legal Studies degree that has sparked my interest (surprise Mom and Dad!)...more info on that later. I will finish up at The MICA Project (check out their website here) after June and I am starting interviews for my second practicum in the Fall. Fingers crossed I get more experience working with immigrants and refugees in a different setting to see what else I enjoy. I am also still on track to do an international practicum next summer so stay tuned for that as well-I wouldn't mind prayers for any of the above!

I cannot even begin to describe the joy I feel being back in St. Louis.  It is so strange to think that I haven't been home for this long since high school, but I couldn't imagine going through grad school in another city.  Even though we have been known to drive each other crazy at times, my parents and sisters (and Matt!) have really kept me sane through this first year. They might feel like they don't see me very often, but I am beyond grateful to be home for most Sunday family dinners. This is a tradition I hope continues for a long time!

As I am sitting outside on one of the most beautiful Spring days (another perk of being back in St. Louis) yet, I can't help but think of my sweet Grandma Janet, who has been my guardian angel this year. We are coming up on the year anniversary of the day she passed away and I find myself thinking of her much more often. There are so many things I wish I could call her and tell her about on Skype, to see her reaction and hear her voice. Instead, I say all these things to her in my prayers. I know she likes being in the known (she was actually the first to hear about my interest in the Master of Legal Studies!) Not surprisingly, I think of her when I notice the beauty of nature. The gorgeous daffodils coming up lately remind me of my last moments with her when I brought some from her own yard to 'beautify' her hospital room. I am so grateful to have so many reminders of her blooming throughout the city.

As much as I hate April, it's been helpful to sit and think of what makes me happy. I think I have the energy, now, to finish strong. If anyone else is having a rough go around, I encourage you to do the same. Write it down, tell someone, just get it out of your head and into the world. Cheers!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

I should have seen it coming...

It's taken me a few days to sit down and write this post. One that is LONG overdue, but hopefully, you will enjoy it.

Here's how many of my conversations have gone lately.

"Oh Abby, how are you?? How's school?"

With a tired smile, I normally answer "Grad school is hard! (awkward laugh), but I'm learning so much! It's great, I love it" Lately, though, that smile is getting more and more tired.

Last Monday was my tipping point. I skipped one class to read for another (funnily enough the reading was over burnout) and then worked from 3-11pm. I got to my car, turned some calming music on and thought "just make it home, Abby. Just make it home."

I got to the second to last stop sign on the drive home and lost it. I was sitting there in my car, crying for no apparent reason. Nothing drastic had happened that day, I didn't have any huge assignments due that week, but there I was, crying uncontrollably.  The breakdown that had been inching its way to the surface for days, if not weeks, finally got to me. I was mentally, physically and emotionally EXHAUSTED in a way that I haven't felt in grad school thus far.

Social workers are fantastic at reading about and advocating for self-care, but we are terrible at practicing it. And I mean terrible. Ironically, my class on Friday (which  I wasn't sure I would make it to) was devoted to self-care for social workers. We discussed what we like to do for self-care when we have time. Social workers are great at recognizing when reactions to stress go from productive to detrimental but for some reason, we can't take the next step and actually do what we enjoy doing when we need it most. We're always 'too busy' to exercise, or have too many assignments to go grab a drink with friends. We advocate for so many, but can't advocate for ourselves, so we end up crying at a stop sign less than two minutes away from home.

A classmate of mine brought up the guilt factor. She mentioned that often times we feel guilty for practicing self-care because so often our clients need us, or don't have what we have. We feel bad turning off our phones and reading when clients or classmates might need us to answer questions.

So I made it to Friday afternoon and I wasn't quite sure what I could change from last week to this week to make sure my neighbors didn't see another impromptu meltdown in my car. Then Sunday came. I feel as though this blog is slowly turning into an advertising campaign for the Catholic Student Center at WashU and Father Gary because every time I go, I feel like writing a blog post.

Anyway, he told a story about one of my favorite authors and priest, Gregory Boyle, and his conversation with a woman who felt like she had given everything she had but still didn't know how to accept gifts from others. She didn't feel like she deserved to be on the receiving end of someone's love/actions. I bet she was a social worker...

It's a hard lesson to learn how to receive love and help when your whole life is dedicated to giving it. This is especially difficult when the one giving love is God, who gives unconditionally! It is hard to build up the courage to ask God for some of that much-needed love and attention.

Sometimes, though, we don't even know we are asking for just looks like a poor girl crying in her car at a stop sign...

A week later and I think I have a little stronger of a grip on life. I took a step back from everything going on, spent a lot more time sending prayers to God, and reached out to friends and family for love. I truly believe that God's love rests in those who know you best, and spending time with them is like a visit with Him. They inject you with the strength you need to keep going.

So thank you to anyone who listened to me last week, who saw that I was exhausted and needed encouragement. You are truly a gift from God.