Don’t forget to write.

I caught a nasty cold in Seattle, and it was – by and large – my own fault.

It’s possible you’re wondering, “what was she doing so far away from Memphis?” and I’ll tell you. But first I must give credit where credit’s due.

The reason I got a cold was that I failed to heed Bernard’s parting words, when he dropped me at the airport: “Go straight to Walgreens and get some of that nose rinse stuff because you’re going to be on a plane for a long time with a lot of recycled air, and you don’t want to get sick.”

But I felt fine on the first day, walking in the chilly rain from my hotel to my destination, passing right by Walgreens without stopping. And I felt fine the next and the next and the next and the next days; and on then on the sixth day I woke and realized I’d caught a cold.

On my first full day back home, Bernard said, “You look like hell; you need to stay in bed.” And I confessed the error of my stubbornness, and he said, “No, it’s ok; I actually came down with a cold while you were gone; you probably got it from me.” And then he tucked the covers around me, turned off the light, and went to work while I stayed in bed, as instructed. I slept, I read, I got started on thank you notes to all the people who had been kind and generous to me during my trip.

I was in Seattle for a 5-day conference and meetings related to my work, with one free day (built-in to offset any travel snafus) to putter around. I planned to spend my one puttering-around day with a writer friend whom I’d never met in person, which sounded very strange to my children and a little strange to Bernard, although in our 20 years together he has gotten used to this particular peculiarity of mine.

Over lunch my friend (who was – as has been everyone, in my similar experiences – more wonderful in person than in our correspondence) asked why I was in town. As I started talking about the conference and my meetings,  she held up her hand and said, “Wait; I thought you worked for a blood bank?”

Back home, after my trip, captive in bed and thinking about this puttering-around day and writing a note to this friend, it occurred to me that while I typically keep my work-work and my personal writing separate, the two sometimes intersect. So, in typical rambling style, I thought this week I might share two highlights from my work trip that illustrate a Venn diagram overlap between what I do for a living and what interests me, generally, about being human.

Here’s the first:

In 1977 a Seattle Superior Court judge named David Soukup spent a sleepless night wrestling with a case that involved a three-year-old child. Judge Soukup’s courtroom was one of general jurisdiction, and most of the cases he heard were related to large sums of money (or other assets) and intellectual interpretation of legal precedents. In presiding over juvenile court cases, however, the “asset” for which he was to determine disposition was a child – a living, breathing, feeling, thinking, vulnerable human being – who had been taken into state custody due to allegations of abuse or neglect.

Despite mountains of paper, legal standings, and passionate arguments from lawyers, case workers, and child protective services, these cases were missing insight into the children’s social, mental and emotional needs. The child’s voice, in the context of complex relationships, was absent.

Remember that this was 1977, the year the original Star Wars movie was released, two years before Kramer vs. Kramer, eight years before the birth of child advocacy initiatives.

So, while he was unable to sleep, worried about doing the right thing for this three-year-old child, Judge Soukup had this crazy idea that maybe volunteers – lay people, not necessarily lawyers – could be trained to investigate, understand, and represent the child’s perspective, and then to speak for the child in court. He floated the idea to four or five people, inviting them to a brown bag lunch.

More than 50 people showed up, and from that meeting Soukup created the program known as Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA. That Seattle-based start-up, the CASA/Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program, is now 40 years old, has almost 1,000 member organizations around the U.S., and speaks for 250,000 vulnerable children each year, providing an unbiased voice for children in court, for judges who want to do the right thing in highly complicated, human situations.

As a side note, this story fits perfectly the script I wrote about in January:

In his work as a judge, David Soukup noticed that cases involving children were missing the child’s voice. So he thought, “what if there were trained adult volunteers whose only jobs would be to advocate for the individual child’s perspective?” And that’s how he started CASA – arguably one of the most important Seattle start-ups, even if it lacks the ubiquity and caché of coffee, computer software and the world’s largest marketplace.

The Memphis/Shelby County CASA program was founded about 10 years after the original idea hatched, in the mid-1980s, around the same time that child advocacy centers were also springing up (here, and elsewhere), and around the time that the National Exchange Club decided to take on child abuse prevention as its signature cause, similar to Rotary’s campaign to eradicate polio. As part of this nationwide Exchange-sponsored effort, local club members established a family center, The Exchange Club Family Center, in Memphis.

In 2013 CASA of Memphis lost a major funding source and was faced with either closing operations or merging with (into) another organization. The Family Center accepted the challenge, and the local CASA program became part of a portfolio of services directed at interrupting the cycle of family abuse, violence and neglect.

In 2016 the executive director of the Family Center retired after 23 straight years at the helm, and I, needing a change after nine years in blood banking, stepped into her job. And that’s why I was in Seattle at the national CASA conference.

Which leads me to the (a) second highlight:

In 2007, after four years of working in the county mayor’s office on child and family policy issues, I decided it was time to re-hang my old independent consulting shingle and return to providing marketing, public relations and strategic planning services to various clients. I set up a website using my name and the tagline (much less common, then, though still not original), “What’s your story?”

My plan was to incorporate my photography work into my work-work, telling stories that had strong visual components. Before I got too far along, one of my clients – the community blood center – hired me full-time.

I left my website, and my consulting practice, behind, unattended, until the week before my 25th college reunion in 2012, when I panicked that one (any) of my much more accomplished classmates might stumble on that pitifully outdated piece of online real estate, and I decided to start a blog to cover over it. That is, quite literally, how much forethought went into starting this thing, jenny’s lark.

Anyway, a couple of months after I joined the staff at Lifeblood, in the fall of 2007, a graphic design friend came home from a national zoo association meeting and called with great excitement to tell me about hearing Andy Goodman (“I think this is what you’re talking about – this story-telling thing”) and reading his book, Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes.

Goodman, a former TV writer (an environment he describes as “the swirling sucking vortex of despair”), started his one-man firm in 1998, wrote a couple of books, started a terrific monthly newsletter (free-range thinking), and in 2008 teamed up with Lipman Hearne to create the Goodman Center, “where do-gooders learn to do better.”

I’ve followed Goodman somewhat religiously since that first discovery, hoping one day I might grow up to be a storyteller, too.

And then, what do you know, he, the real Andy Goodman, was scheduled as the third and final of the “big” speakers at the 40th anniversary national CASA conference.

There’s something about seeing someone live – a speaker, a band, a friend you’ve never actually met in person – for which there is simply no substitute. Inflection, intonation, hand gestures, responsiveness, all lose something in even the best video translation.

So I woke Tuesday morning, the last day of the conference, the sixth day of my trip, realizing I had caught a cold, needing not to miss my 9:45 airport shuttle (which ended up not mattering, because #weather and #traveldelay), and knowing I should probably skip the final morning session, but also keen on my one chance to hear Andy Goodman in real life.

He did not disappoint.

From celebrating the Immortal Fans campaign, about which he’d written in a newsletter a few years ago, to reducing the entire, 1200 person ballroom to tears by playing the first 4:21 of the movie Up! (“Carl & Ellie’s Story” – which you really must watch, if you’ve never seen it), Goodman proved himself worthy of the story evangelist title.

His plea to everyone who wants to save the world is identical to Anne Lamott’s plea to everyone who wants to save him or herself: write the damned story, your story, the one only you can tell. If you do it well, Goodman suggests (and I think he’s right), then you can change the stories that are already in other people’s heads, replacing existing stories (of fear, uncertainty, doubt) with new ones (of hope, belief, action).

What I’ve been doing for the past eight months, learning a new job, learning about new things, has been mostly trying to extract a clear story why our work – my new work – matters. Two-thousand miles from home, a few of the foggy panes got clearer.

Now, more than ever, I’m convinced that connecting with other people, embracing the intersections of our true, organic, sprawling, messy, human narratives, is what will keep us from falling into the vile abyss. I believe this with every fiber of my being.

At dinner one night in the Emerald City, surrounded by kind strangers and a generous friend I’d never met in person (a different friend from the one I already mentioned – and yes, it’s a recurring theme), I had the great and excruciating privilege of talking about my writing. It’s a great privilege because this kind of inquiry is always flattering; it’s excruciating because my personal writing, here on this ridiculous blog, lacks any focused rhyme or reason.

And when I get the inevitable question – “what do you write about?” – I have no clear answer, no elevator pitch, no glossy, tri-fold brochure. 

So, on this recent occasion, I gave the answer I always give, which is this (and I say it pretty much this same way, every single time): “One of my good friends would tell you that I write about what it’s like being a woman in the South, and though I’m not really sure that’s it, exactly, I don’t have a better answer.”

What’s interesting, at least to me, is that no one ever, ever asks the much simpler question: “Why do you write?” That answer, silly, is crystal clear: I write so I won’t get lost. I write these rambling, random stories mostly for me, as a way of remembering myself and what matters, to me.

Possibly, it’s not all that different from the way David Soukup, now in his 80s, tells himself, while telling others, the story of retiring from the bench and becoming a CASA volunteer. He, David, was working with a young child he calls Jonathan (whose name isn’t actually Jonathan), standing outside the courtroom, before the final ruling. And as he was standing there, waiting (he tells this part with a great sense of anticipation), he heard Jonathan, spilling with delight as he ran to his child protective services case worker, say: “Come over here! I want to introduce you to David; he’s my very best friend.”

I caught a nasty bug in Seattle, and it’s my own fault. It’s a lingering kind of virus, I’m afraid, the kind that makes me believe in crazy things. Like that stories matter, and that in them we all can find the inspiration to keep moving forward.


Food | Week of March 20, 2017

Spring Green Risotto | Bibb Lettuce Salad

Lamb Meatballs | Green Beans | Sweet Potato Wedges

Honey-Roasted Brussels Sprouts | Warm Blue-Cheese Slaw | Cauliflower with Parmesan

Fritatta with Ham, Gruyere and Onions

Bittman’s Refried Beans | Rice | Cilantro Salad

2 Comments Add yours

  1. jgroeber says:

    Such a good reminder of why I wrote and why I need to begin writing again. So I don’t get lost. (And perhaps to continue staying connected to faraway friends I’ve never met so that maybe I can get in on the next get together… Boston anyone?)

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