Sunday, April 14, 2013

New wineskins

April 14, 2013

Dear friends,

In my mind I titled the woman Executive Assistant to the Director of the Dining Room, then promptly abbreviated this longish title to EA.

In reality, EA did not hold a position. She was a resident, like me and others who appear her story here. Watching her, I guessed that in her prerehab life EA been Lady-In-Charge in her work environment. At any rate, like the Colonel EA appeared to have brought the emotional, relational habits of her old life with her [You met the Colonel in my March 24, 2013 blog].

Each day EA came to the dining room wheeling a small piece of carry-on luggage that she utilized as a brief case. At each meal EA approached her self-assigned table in a business-like hurry. Standing, she inspected the table cloth at her place for straying crumbs and delinquent coffee stains (none were allowed). When satisfied with the condition of her table, she would park her brief case, seat herself, then scrutinize carefully the residents seated around her. (Watching her reminded me of an Assistant Principal keeping a watchful eye on the school cafeteria.) When assured that all present were behaving properly, EA would then remove paper from her “brief case” and, ignoring the activity around her, would write industriously until her meal was served.

Each evening the Sergeant was present, however, EA varied her dinner routine. [The Sergeant appeared with the Colonel in the March 24, 2013 blog.]

The Sergeant  had an identified place and function in the dining room. While his role was unnamed and unofficial, he was covertly recognized by staff and residents alike as a Valuable-Care-Taker. Among other self-assigned tasks, the Sergeant managed the Colonel’s strong aversion both to green beans and the necessity to eat with the “troops” (the Colonel lived in the shadow of his past when he dined in the officers’ mess). A tiny lady who was a stoke victim routinely was seated across from the Sergeant. Without drawing attention to himself or to her, the Sergeant monitored her struggle to feed herself and watched for the danger of choking. He alertly supported an aware, appreciative staff by ratcheting up his business-as-usual voice and keeping conversation going whenever angry, loud voices erupted from the table near the door. The Sergeant’s awareness and responsive presence was important to us all.

On those evenings when the Sergeant arrived before her, EA would park her “brief case,” then visit the Sergeant’s table to talk for a bit before returning to her own. If the Sergeant were late, EA would stop by his table to visit before she left the dining room.

There was a subtle attention-getting “look-at-me” air to EA’s obviously calculated trips. Initially, my casual impression of her interaction with the Sergeant suggested a mild, socially-awkward flirtation. After more careful observation, however, I concluded that this first impression was misleading—in fact, quite wide of the mark. Something else was happening—something important that lay behind the non-verbal sexually-tinged behavior EA publicly displayed.

What I have caught of EA’s story is only a fragment, likely a fragment from the middle or the beginning of the end. What I saw was a pattern: During my time in the rehab unit, EA did not alter the frequency or nature of her contacts with the Sergeant. The Sergeant did not alter his friendly response, his pattern of verbal-sparring that drew others into the conversation, his consistent non-verbal messages of good humor and good will without a hint of anything else. He terminated every conversation with EA with a smile and a half-wave of his hand.

Think with me: What was EA seeking from the Sergeant? Recognition? Affiliation that would burnish her sense of identity as a powerful person? Connection that would increase her control of her environment? Reassurance that the skills she had learned in early life would still enable her to reach her goals? Assurance of her worth? An experience of feeling "special"?

While I can only guess, I believe that EA had more than one goal, and that few of these goals were consciously clear to her. What I could see, day after day, however, was an effort that saddened me. Always the brief case and the paper work; always her search for relationship focused primarily on the Sergeant; always that faintly sexual air that, I sensed, camouflaged something that was serious business indeed but that had little to do with actual sex. And always the Sergeant’s friendly response of personal attention held firmly in the context of boundaries EA could not breech.

EA interested me. It seemed to me that EA consistently announced nonverbally that she was an important person with lots of important work to do. She demonstrated daily her difference from the majority of the residents—she had work to do even at meals. She sought to ally with the Sergeant (I guessed) because, among other reasons, she saw him as someone like her—an important person with important work to do.

As I watched, I concluded that her flirtatious behavior was merely an old often used tool. This approach had become so automatic to EA that emotional habit and lack of alternative skills prohibited her from trying something new despite the limited payoff she now received. In the context of the rehab unit, I came to see EA’s pattern much like the behavior of the man who cried daily to go home. [Blog, January 13, 2013] You may remember that he appeared to believe that he could go home if only he could open the outside door. EA appeared to believe that personal importance and sex would lead to relationships that would ease the hungers of her heart.

I will grant that old tools provide the comfort of the familiar. Unfortunately, this comfort holds a misleading promise of safety and productiveness.  New times in life bring change and its paradoxical tension of gain and loss. Choosing life requires both acquision of new tools and the willingness to risk mastering their use.

Jesus cautioned us about putting new wine in old wineskins.

As an octogenarian, I increasingly covet the energy and wisdom that will permit me consciously to remain aware of my changing world and accept the need for new tools.  I have yet to discover easy aging, and seriously doubt that such an experience exists.

Exploring with you the challenge of laying down old tools and the courage necessary to brew new wine and buy new wineskins.

See you next week.


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