At work: mostly “Zim” and “Danny Boy”, although I’ve been called several other things. And at
home: “Husband” (although I’ve been called several other things there as well!)
Being part of a team that provides people with life-changing opportunities. It’s as simple as that. I’ve witnessed incredible personal transformations across the board over the years in those I’ve helped to support, within the caregivers I’ve been so fortunate to collaborate with and, at times, within myself. It’s been an incredible opportunity.
28 years…the same number of years listed above when asked how many years I’ve worked for Nonotuck! I began my HS career in early June of 1991 after being disenchanted with the banking career I’d been developing for a number of years. I’d been responsible for lending for a small community bank that was rapidly growing, and though it was a very successful bank and a successful start for me, I found myself oddly dissatisfied. I soon realized that what was sorely missing was any real sense of community. This led me to start looking for a meaningful change in how I made my living in this world and how I was connecting with others through my work. I saw an ad in my local paper (how we found jobs back then!) that brought me to Nonotuck where I began supporting three gentlemen in the north Greenfield area. I quickly grew very fond of them, but not of how they were living, which almost resulted in my departure from Nonotuck. I was so happy to learn, in the fall of 1993, that change was coming as our CEO, George Fleischner, and Nonotuck’s Board was striving for something new and better: Shared Living. The day I gave my notice, I was told of this and urged to talk to George about it before leaving my work within the “group home” model. I reached out to him and was delighted when he reached right back and shared with me the emerging vision of a powerful change in how Nonotuck provided its residential supports. We met and George then asked me one single interview question and set me loose to respond: “What do you believe in?” After talking for what now seems like an eternity(!) George congratulated me (much to my delight) on becoming Nonotuck’s first Assistant Director (what is now a Care Manager position) within its new endeavor to close its community residences and begin what we now call Shared Living…in Franklin County and soon to be within all of the counties Nonotuck then served.
I’ve recounted this moment with a number of my officemates at Nonotuck, and I’m sure a few
will be quick to recognize this story. When I first began direct care work in a Nonotuck
community residence in 1991, I was helping to support three men in a Greenfield residence. During my first week, I’d received numerous “warnings” about the rather severe reputations of two of the individuals who lived there. Reputations of violence against others and a tendency to have “hair triggers” in tense situations. Daunting stuff. So I went about my business and kept my eyes open and tried to be a keen observer and a friendly support. I often worked weekends and found myself trying to plan entertaining days with three very different people with three very different sets of interests and I wasn’t always successful at this. One particular Saturday, I struggled trying to keep the peace during a series of attempted activities of my own design (a picnic, a group walk, attending a family party in the area, etc.) One individual whom I’ll refer to as “J” was having a particularly challenging day. He was being teased relentlessly by one of his housemates and, try as I did, I wasn’t able to get his housemate to relent.
The day ground on, and I could feel tensions rising. Upon our return home late in the day, the phone rang near me in the kitchen. And as I turned to answer it, I suddenly found myself on the kitchen floor looking up at “J” who’d just delivered a powerful roundhouse blow to my head, sending me to the floor like a sack of rocks! I never saw it coming. But I should have. As my vision reduced to tunnel vision and I was on the verge of passing out, I watched as he positioned himself over me and drew back his fist to deliver another devastating blow. I somehow managed to scuttle away and protect myself by getting under the kitchen table. I then spent the next, well, what seemed like hours but was likely only about 15 minutes or so(!), walking backwards and talking calmly and reassuringly to an endlessly advancing J, trying desperately to de-escalate the situation and stay at least a few paces in front of him. Tempers eventually calmed and J retreated to his bedroom and remained at the house until the time he usually retired for the night.
After a few hours of reflection, I realized at this point what an abysmal job I’d done protecting him from the day-long verbal barrage of his housemate. I’d focused so much on trying to redirect him from J that I scarcely addressed the torment with J at all. J and I had developed a close relationship in a short amount of time up to that point and I knew that what had happened was in large part a result of his frustration and being unwilling to resolve this with his housemate on his own. Being unable to use words to communicate and being much smaller than his tormentor, I could understand why he didn’t. I decided to take a risk and see if he was still awake and talk to him about this.
After knocking on his door and hearing him sit up, I entered and sat next to him with the light from the hallway shining on both of us. We could see each other clearly and I could see that he was still very angry and not too pleased to be dealing with me again. So I laid it all out on the table, telling him I’d been warned that he was someone I should never turn my back on. But I let him know that I felt as though I’d turned my back on him in a completely different way that day without even realizing it, failing to adequately help keep him safe and comfortable…and in his own home no less. I told him I owed him an apology and told him how sorry I was that I hadn’t been more creative or resourceful or energetic enough to help make his situation better. And that I was going to try even harder in the days ahead to prevent this from ever happening again. I left his room and I watched him wrench the comforter up over his head as I closed his bedroom door, happy to see me go.
I was in for a long overnight after that and went about my usual tasks of vacuuming, checking medications, squaring up the money, entering notes in the home’s logbook, etc. When I finally sat down on the living room sofa, positioned with its back to the small hallway leading to the home’s three bedrooms, I was happy to have the escape of a book I brought with me. It was now about 2 or 3am. And as soon as I sat down I heard J’s bedroom door slide open across the top of his carpeted floor. Uh oh…“Round 2” I silently thought to myself. But I promised myself that I wouldn’t show J fear of his presence and that I would try to be natural and show that I was happy to help him with whatever it was he needed at that hour. My knees were shaking again.
I heard him approach from the hallway behind me, and I heard him walk up to me slowly in his stocking feet. It was at this moment that I felt his hands on each side of my head as he reached down from his position behind me at the sofa! (Now my knees were really shaking…) And as I began to say the words “What can I help you with….” I felt J deliver a kiss to the top of my head, heard him turn around and proceed to walk back to his bedroom, gently closing the door behind him. I’d been forgiven.
Taking that chance…making myself vulnerable in the face of J’s vulnerability ended up having an effect that was uncommon and unexpected for both of us. This man with a litany of the most stigmatizing diagnoses, truly anxiety inducing diagnoses and one of the most severe reputations had the grace to accept my apology and forgive me. Me…the college educated “staff person” who was supposed to be in charge of everything and have all of the answers. And who had failed him so miserably until I allowed myself to drop my pride and own up to my failure. I was never so proud of anyone as I was J in that moment! I was so proud of him. And of myself. And of the hard-won bond that now existed between us and that lasted for years to follow.
Many of us have had those moments we call “game changers.” This was one of mine.
If I had a choice in the matter, I know what my answer would be. The most joyful animals I have ever had the good fortune of witnessing are river otters! They are just the epitome of joyful living! Despite how hard they need to work to stay alive and to feed themselves and their young, they always seem to be playing as well…they appear to have achieved that wonderfully elusive thing in life: balance! They are lithe, strong, energetic and full of affection for one another. One can’t see a group of river otters and not be left wishing to be out of one’s canoe or kayak and in the water with them, slipping through the weeds, finding food, evading danger and celebrating what it means to be alive! They are incredible animals and have a unique niche in the natural world. (And if that option weren’t available, I feel no shame admitting that I’d happily settle for my second choice: a lap cat! Hell, I’m already half lap-cat as it is!)
Earlier this year, I watched the video of the young golfer and Special Olympian Amy Bockerstette being invited to play a hole of golf with professional golfer Gary Woodland during a practice round at a PGA tournament event. It’s a pressure-cooker of a golf hole in a uniquely designed “stadium” with tall gallery seating stretching from the tee box down the fairway to the green on both sides. I can’t help but have deep admiration for the mantra she was witnessed uttering repeatedly to herself to calm her mind and focus her thoughts despite the amazing pressure she was under: “I got this, I can do this!” This par-3 hole is one that many professionals crumble on in front of the usually wild and very, very vocal crowd…a crowd happy to celebrate a player’s successes as much as they are happy to mercilessly taunt them for their mis-hits! Amy hit a great first shot but came up a bit short of the green and ended up in a deep sand-filled bunker…a young golfer’s nightmare with or without a huge crowd watching! Again: “I got this, I can do this!” She followed up with a very committed shot out of the sand that left her a tough middle-distance curling putt to finish this challenging hole. Again: “I got this, I can do this!” And you can guess what happens next. In true athletic fashion, she converts the image in her mind into a reality on the course…an amazing recovery! Her play and commitment to success epitomized what the great “scramblers” in golf do week after week and what the great fighters in life do day after day, turning challenges into success. If this isn’t an apt metaphor for life, I don’t know what is. Her mantra was short and sweet. And I’ve found myself repeating it from time to time ever since. If you haven’t seen this video of Amy, try this link and enjoy! (“You got this, you can do this!”)
Almost anything by the author Bill Bryson who is best known for a book turned into a movie also entitled “A Walk in The Woods”. (This particular book is about his misadventures committing to hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine before he knew what this would really entail!) I’m happy to report that he’s written myriad books, and he’s the first author I genuinely laughed out loud while reading. He writes about hiking, becoming a resident of Great Britain, returning to the states, world travel and he’s written many books about just words and the English language itself. His writing is pure comic genius and he’s a bona fide wise-ass! He’s too smart for his own good, at times imperious and unyieldingly critical…and just caustically funny! If you’ve had a particular thought or criticism or observation about the human condition, he’s likely already put it into words. He’s a born researcher as so many good authors are. His thoughts and words amble across the page as much as he has ambled around the world, at times leading you so far from his last clear thought that you find yourself wondering not just where the hell his story is going…but where did it even start? If he ponders the simple genius of, say, a pencil, you’re going to read all about its origins, the person who invented it, the town he or she lived in, what era they were from, what obstacles they found before finding success, etc. He undertakes the kind of writing that just makes hours fly by in the most entertaining way. A true wit!
This is easy: bird-watching/nature-watching with my wife. Anywhere, anytime and any season. But mostly in the deep woods that surround our home in Northfield. To just quiet the mind and observe the unknown and unexpected things of the natural world…to begin recognizing the countless protagonists in the environment around you…to start recognizing recurrent visitors…and to then realize you’re being recognized, watched and scrutinized in return! It creates a link to the natural world that is nurturing and sustaining and helps to create a humble appreciation of the environment we sometimes briefly share, as well as the need to cherish and protect it. Just last night I watched a handsome gray catbird study me from atop the arbor in our back yard, craning its head and then cautiously hopping closer and closer without making a sound…so cautiously! It was amazing how close its curiosity brought it to me. (But this experience of being observed was a bit more comfortable than the time a black bear did a similar thing when it stumbled upon us seated just feet away from it in these woods, craning its head similarly, staring and trying to figure us out!) Just spending time in the natural world is…well, it’s free. And it’s real. And it’s absolutely breathtaking.
This one is easy, but not quite as comfortable: “Stop thinking I’m unassailably right so much of the time!” (Subtitled: “Shut up and listen more!”) When I’m able to do this, I’m able learn and become a better friend, husband, brother, son, uncle, co-worker, supervisor, neighbor, etc. And since mission statements seldom encapsulate only one key idea, mine shall be no different. I want to somehow weave into it the notion of initiating more. More what? Everything! I want to initiate more of the things that connect me with people and promote health: contact with friends old and new, more physical activity, more reaching out, more spontaneity, more exploration, more artistic expression, more cooking, more playing and more little adventures without such over-reliance on others to do this for me. If you set the bar high here, falling short of it is still going to produce some good outcomes!
I’m lucky. I’m surrounded by many who initiate very well, so I think I live pretty well. But I think to be more fully mature (and not just chronologically speaking!) you must take the wheel frequently, willingly and enthusiastically. My father, at times a man of few words, had a single word that encapsulates this that he said over and over. His personal mantra was: “LIVE!” Just really live your life! My siblings and I knew what he meant. Find the time and energy to do it, to really live! Because the time and energy are there even most times when we think it’s not. And it’s easier to live with mistakes when they were made boldly and adventurously. And there is still something likely to be gained whether you reached your identified goals or not. I believe this is essential to one’s happiness. I think these are elements of a worthy personal mission statement.
I’m having a hard-enough time answering the questions you’ve given me…please don’t make me come up with any of my own that I have to answer!
Here it is: “What is one of the most valuable things you’ve learned through your time at Nonotuck?”
This is a question I frequently ask others that I work with. And I also frequently receive similar responses…usually related to the need to develop more patience and to slow…the…heck…down! I know so many people through my work at Nonotuck. And there seems to be one common denominator that runs through their work, whether here, at other vendor agencies or our funding sources: stress! The demands of supporting others, of helping people to find a better way in this world, to be there for them during their more challenging moments and to keep up with the unending regulatory and documentation needs in a meaningful way can seem overwhelming. Those who are successful at this and can find some longevity “in the field” are the ones who develop tempo. They’re the ones who’ve found a stride that works for them and allows them to produce their best. If you’ve got 10 things on your plate with time to complete only 5 of them, then you better at least do a few of those things well…really well! And they better be the things that matter! Like relationship building. Relationships simply take time!
We ask so much of our caregivers. And from those we support. And from each other. The entire Human Service system does. Expectations are high as are the needs we hope to support and there will never be enough time to get to everything that’s asked of us. So find a way to find the joy in the tasks at hand and the courage to do those things that matter. The successful people around me are the ones who have come to realize this…and to realize that a missed deadline won’t stop the world from spinning. In fact, it won’t even wobble a little. I promise. (Well…maybe just a little bit.)
And we might just learn to avoid succumbing to despair or stress or disappointment or that slow erosion of the very best that we are comprised of. Stop focusing on what didn’t get done and stop magnifying the effects of criticism and trying to take on the impossible and instead, do this: take joy and share in what has been done well to help others learn and grow…let that create some momentum for you! And try to convince others of the merit of doing this. Something well done, say a teachable moment with someone…it can last a lifetime. For both of you. I know, as I’ve seen occur repeatedly at Nonotuck.
And it only took me 28 years in this position to learn this! But doesn’t that statement just reflect how we all learn at our own pace and in our own way. The more we can bring this knowledge into the world the better this world of ours will be. It can be a celebration! It can be magic! It can be a lot of wonderful things! But it will only actually become what we commit our actions to. And if I can’t do it, perhaps I can still at least support those who can.
You really don’t want to see a picture of me, it might spoil the whatever tapestry of mystery and magic I’ve been able to weave here in words! So I propose the following: just take a few deep, cleansing breaths and allow the image of a young Sean Connery to come to mind. With a beard. In a remarkably crisp tuxedo. With my tie loosened just a bit. And a glass of Scotch (neat) held confidently in my hand as I regard you with a penetrating gaze. And are those a few $100 bills peeking out from behind my pocket square? Maybe. (Remember, “You’ve got this, you can do this!”)
That’s it…you’ve GOT it! Now just sit back and enjoy!
Learn how Nonotuck developed a love-based ideology of care. We started our shared living program as an alternative to group homes for people with disabilities. Instead, Shared Living creates genuine life transformation for people with disabilities, as well as families and communities. The true power of caregiving is found through hospitality, authenticity, and love.