A few weeks ago I visited with a woman I had not seen in over 42 years. When I first met her, she was in her early twenties and had recently left the convent. The life of a nun was not for her. She wanted to explore life and do good out in the world. It was the spring of 1967. She was about to graduate with a degree in philosophy and psychology. She was gorgeous. I passed her on a staircase, instantly knew she was special, and boldly told her I loved her. I had had “a few.” She bought my humor and presence, if not my line. For a few weeks, we went out, took walks and had several long talks. I was impressed by her deep sense of conviction, the thought she had given to her future, and her willingness to take risks.
That summer she moved to Washington DC to look for work and eventually found it in the youth division of the police department, one of only 13 women on the force of 3,000. I visited her before I went off to be trained for the war in Vietnam. Drafted, I had joined the Army Reserves with the hope of avoiding active duty in the jungle. During basic training we corresponded. I went for another visit after my training. Then our friendship (for the time being as it turns out) ended. Let’s just say I had a little maturing to do.
That spring, I met Suzanne, my partner all these years. She showed me what it meant to have a calling as an artist, and shortly after that I found my way in Child and Youth Care. One night recently I was thinking again about the woman I last saw in D.C. and how she had influenced me with her thoughtful, free spirited sense of conviction. I wondered how her life had gone. So I “Googled” her name and to my surprise found her nearby just north of Chicago. Within an hour I got a note back saying what a nice surprise it was to hear from me and inviting me to visit. She seemed to have forgotten or forgiven some of my shenanigans.
I drove down from Milwaukee a couple weeks later on a sunny spring day. From the first moment it seemed as if no time had passed. We had lunch and told our stories. Her story was truly remarkable. She had gotten a degree in law, helped prosecute organized crime in New York and went on to be a very successful corporate lawyer (as we ate I could not keep from smiling with admiration at the thought that this rather petite woman had taken on such risky challenges). I always knew she would be successful, she was and is very smart, hardworking and dedicated. And like many women she had balanced her career with a marriage and a son. A dozen or so years ago, she had also gone back to school to get a masters in social work and became a Jungian therapist. She had come full circle, from human services, to corporate law, and back to human services, all of which, of course, depend on having good people skills.
Our conversation continued on the shore of Lake Michigan where for more than 30 years she had been walking while 60 miles north I had been running. We both agreed it was not a coincidence that we had come together at this point in our lives to discuss how we had evolved. We discovered many similarities (we both had just one child, sons about the same age) and differences in the courses we had chosen. I was so happy to see her again and reminisce.
Later that afternoon we shared photos of our families. Before the visit ended she gave me a couple of books to read. She had expressed interest in my books and I ask her to share some of her influences. One of those books was The Devine Milieu by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Pierre Teilhard or Teilhard as he is often referred to).
When I got home, I dove into the book because I wanted to know more about what had shaped her thinking back when she chose to leave the convent and met me. Reading the book was one insight after another of the kind that one has about someone in hindsight. For those who do not know (I didn’t until she gave me the book), Teilhard was a Jesuit, thinker, scientist (geologist and paleontologist who helped discover Peking Man) and philosopher. He called himself a phenomenologist and challenged some of the traditions of the Catholic Church in an attempt to bring the inner world of faith together with conscious man's actions in the outer scientific world and the universe (faith and reason). His writing spoke to me the way a book that one reads and doesn’t completely understand, but wants to, speaks, especially his notions of evolving consciousness and detachment/attachment through action (Please excuse this vast oversimplification of a very complex, deep thinking man of faith).
I am not a religious person. I have not gone to church in a long time. But I do consider myself spiritual. The further into the book I read, the more I thought about the notion of milieu in residential care, or at least milieu as it was taught to me by many of the pioneers in the field. Like many of my co-workers and colleagues in the profession, I learned that the milieu was a place where everything we did for youth served a developmental and therapeutic purpose and was interconnected in the macro and micro systems in which we worked. If we planned our interactions and activities with this in mind there was tremendous potential in each daily living experience. Nothing was too small to consider; each interaction and activity had enormous potential. Books and techniques including Controls from Within, Life Space Interview, A Guide for Child Care Workers, The Professional Houseparent, The Other Twenty Three Hours and later The Ecology of Human Developmental, Group Care for Children and Youth and Being in Child Care: A Journey into Self showed us how to do this.
We also took the kids to church if they wanted to go and shared our individual feelings of spirituality with them. As a boy I had learned that God was love and Jesus was our earthly role model. As a young man in search of words and ideas to define my spirituality I was influenced by Erik Erikson's Gandhi’s Truth, which I read after Childhood in Society, and books like Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. During devotions in the treatment center I read from Khalill Gibran's The Prophet. I read Thomas Merton, curious about how a man who had lived a wild young life became a deep thinking monk. Later I was influenced by the street wise, scholarly musings of Mike Baizerman who introduced me to Martin Buber (philosophy of dialogue and religious existentialism) and others who brought their spirituality to their work.
Back then my co-workers and I tried to introduce some of this thinking through our actions and speaking into the lives of the youth. We felt spirituality was as much in nature, the songs of John Lennon and Bob Dylan, and the writings of Gibran and many others, as it was in the religious dogma that some of them had or had not been exposed to.
All along, however, we/I more or less kept this part of the work compartmentalized from the work of development in the daily environment. It was as if there was this spiritual side of the work that most of us acknowledged but rarely strategically integrated into our case and/or treatment plans. It was out there, taken for granted as something to include as long as we were open-minded about the multiple and complex ways youth experienced and expressed their spirituality.
Reading The Divine Milieu and reflecting on these experiences got me thinking again about how perhaps the time has arrived when we can/should freely and knowingly make spirituality, in the broadest sense, a strategic part of our writing and activity and case plans for youth. Many undoubtedly have and will continue to do this. But maybe as a field we should make a greater effort (evolving consciousness) to integrate spiritual teachings with science and experience into our interactions during relational practice. Robert Coles has done this beautifully in The Spiritual Life of Children, I am told. Maybe more of us should weave this part of self, other, “otherliness,” and the world into the daily dance in the milieu. Recognize how it shapes youth in their search for meaning and identity as we plan and are enmeshed in our activity and relationships together. It would fit in nicely in the progression of thinking and action present in the powerful new book Standing on the Precipice: Inquiry into the Creative Potential of Child and Youth Care Work (2008) that speaks to the multiple ways youth develop and make meaning in the postmodern world.
In past columns of Moments with Youth, I have written about phenomena such as waiting, anticipating, motion, stillness, transitions, lunch and death/beauty. After reconnecting with my friend, I am curious again about the spiritual nature of these experiences. I see it as part of these moments just as relationship, presence and development care are. Our meeting also reminded me of how important our timeless encounters with youth can be, and the way these moments become parts of their stories as they grow, develop, and evolve.
When, eager to know why she had trusted and spent time with me many years ago, I asked my friend why she gave me Teilhard to read, she said, “One of the consequences is that I am an optimist. He was my intellectual hero because he introduced me to evolving consciousness but I think he tried too hard to be Catholic. In an e-mail I wrote that it seemed we were both what Walt Whitman called, “Itinerant gladness scatterers.” I prefer Leonard Cohen's “Our lady by the harbor; Jesus was a sailor when he walked on water”, Zen Buddha, Jewish, Muslim, Christian spirituality and parallel universe, chaos, orthogenesis, and scientific thinking to any form of organized religion. In other words, I prefer the open-ended quest to the walls and constrictions of one faith or another. “Jesus was a sailor when he walked on water,” Leonard Cohen sings.
We plan to continue our conversation about
synchronicity and many other phenomena. Having taken up painting and
photography, she is eager to meet Suzanne, and vice versa. Given
Suzanne’s ideas about the universe, work, death, and life that should be