House on Fire

I have been carrying this story in my heart for the past six years, and I decided last night to put it on paper.

House on Fire
by Joy Pedersen

My baby girl was born in a burning house.

The flames were small at first. It was burning slowly – behind the walls, under the ground, in the attic.

But eventually, the walls began to crumbled, the windows cracked, and the panes blew out.

The fire engines came, and I turned them away. “You must leave,” they said.

“We’re fine, “ I replied while the shingles fell from the roof around me.

My friends shouted from outside, “Get out! Save yourself!” But I continued to live there.

I continued to live in the windowless, roofless house with cracked windows and crumbling walls.

The floorboards glowed with fiery embers. But I learned to tiptoe to avoid being burned.

Smoke filled the air. But I learned to take shallow breaths.

“It’s not that hot,” I told myself.

The flames became unpredictable. I came home to find rooms burned, furniture ruined, another part of the house damaged.

The heat was unbearable at night. As the sun set, the temperature rose. By dark the house was steaming.

On one of these hot nights, when she was four years old, my daughter woke me up. She touched me in my sleep, and said, “Mommy, the house is on fire.” I opened my eyes and looked around. The fire was everywhere. The flames were white hot. The smoke was thick. My skin was burning. My eyes were stinging.

I looked down at my beautiful little girl. She was so calm, so brave, so full of life. And I said, “You’re right. It’s time to leave.”

I picked her up. I walked out the door. And I never looked back.

That night, everything burned. The house was destroyed. But we were saved.

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The Man and the River

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By Joy Pedersen

Once there was a man who loved to wander through the forest. He spent days exploring rock caves and hidden valleys. One day, he came across an enchanted river. The water in the river was always pure. It made a magical sound as it flowed across the rocks. The river provided an abundance of fish and brought in creatures from across the mountain ranges. The man decided he needed to live by the river.

The man built a house next to the river. Every morning he bathed in the pure water. Every night he sat at the river’s edge and admired its beauty. And while he slept, the sound of the river brought him the most amazing dreams. Then, the river began to dry up. At first it was too low to bathe in. Eventually the fish could no longer swim there. The creatures stopped coming across the mountains. And eventually, the river was gone.

For years, the man continued to live in his house by the dry river bed. Every morning he walked down to the edge of where the river used to be, hoping the river would return. At night while he slept, he dreamt of waking up to the sound of the water flowing. He wanted the river more than anything. He was afraid if he moved on, he would forget the river and the magic he felt when he was near it.

At the same time, upstream there was a woman. The woman loved to wander through the forest and had also found the magical river. She fell in love with its mystical powers and decided to build a dam. Her dam created a huge pool and stopped the water from flowing down stream. Every morning she bathed in the magnificent lake she had created. The creatures found the lake and started coming across the mountains again. For years, the woman lived alone by the lake.

Some say the woman found the man one day while she was exploring in the forest. Others say the man eventually grew tired of living alone by the dry river bed. In any case, the man and woman eventually crossed paths. The woman brought the man to the lake, and once again he felt the magic of the enchanted water. He was awakened. He realized that the magic had never disappeared, it was always out there even though the river was no longer. He was no longer afraid to leave his home. He knew he would never forget the magic of the river and he would always find his way back to it.

Letting Go of A Wild Heart

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Loving someone with a wild heart is a taste of heaven. A person with a wild heart is completely present, wants to try everything, fully loves life, and makes you feel like you’re in a dream. A wild heart takes you beyond reality. But, a wild heart cannot be tamed. It cannot be tied down, caged, tethered, or captured. It will eventually want to be free. It will chew its own arm off to feel the wind in its hair, the road beneath its feet, the sun on its back. The harder you hold it the more it will resist. And often, loving a wild heart also means losing it. But it was never yours. And while loving a wild heart is an adventure, letting go of a wild heart will transform you.

When you let go of a wild heart, you realize you were enough all along. You find the wildness in yourself. You see that attachment is the root of all suffering.

So is it possible to be in a committed relationship with a wild heart? Absolutely. But both hearts must be wild. Both partners must recognize and respect the wildness in the other. And you must be willing to let them go, because to truly love someone is to let them be wild.

And even better than loving another wild heart, is loving your own wild heart. Walk out of your own cage, take off your own chains, untie your own tethers. Sometimes you find the cage wasn’t even locked, the chain wasn’t attached to anything, the ropes were never tied. Find your own wind, walk your own road, come out into the sunlight. We are all wild!

Bending Spoons

 

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A year ago I read a book by Martha Beck, and I knew I needed more…more of her, more of her tribe, more love, more freedom, and more peace. But I almost set the book down and turned away from it all because of one chapter. She described bending spoons, and that’s where she almost lost me. I went to my kitchen and said to myself “if this spoon doesn’t bend, I’m not in.” The spoon didn’t bend. I thought maybe it was all too woo woo for me. But I took a step in faith and I signed up for the Martha Beck Institute. This weekend I went to the Martha Beck retreat and they passed out the spoons. I didn’t bend a spoon at the retreat either. I felt like it might not happen. And then this morning while drinking my coffee, I dropped into a deep relaxed state and bent the spoon.

I share this because it’s a reminder that life is a journey. We don’t always get what we want when we want it. We sometimes do things we didn’t think were possible. And sometimes we have to take a leap of faith.

Dear World

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Dear World is a team that travels the world to amplify the voices of individual stories through portraits. They have captured over 70,000 stories and been featured in USA Today, CNN, NBC, and Buzzfeed. Our stories are powerful because they connect us to each other. Learning about each other is vital to our success, as a community, a species, and a planet.

Here is my story:

Dear World,

I have faith.

Marriages end for many reasons. It’s difficult to say exactly what happened, but I chose to leave. I felt my life depended on it. The year my marriage ended was full of new beginnings, uncertainty, and transitions. For the first time in my life I felt I couldn’t be certain of anything, but through the changes I felt a calmness that I can only describe as faith. I had no idea what was ahead, but these words kept coming back to me – have faith.

I share my story because new beginnings are possible, sometimes we are stronger than we think we are, and there are always better days ahead. We are all one choice away from a completely different life.

“Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Helping students create healthy boundaries

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Every year I meet with students who are exhausted, frustrated, angry, and suffering because they are taking care of another student. While we encourage students to engage in up-stander behavior, students should not feel they are responsible for the ongoing health and well-being of another student. Of course, we want students to look out for each other and help each other avoid dangerous situations; but taking 24/7 shifts to be with another student indefinitely, feeling the need to use their cell phone to track another student’s location, frequently leaving class to respond to another student’s emergency, regularly staying up all night or missing study time to care for another student, and regularly checking in with another student via text or other means to be sure the other student is ok, are unhealthy behaviors.

As educators, many of us also have caretaking tendencies. There is so much need in the world, it is tempting to give our time, energy, and expertise to the point of exhaustion. I often draw on my own experiences when helping students learn to establish boundaries. For some caretaking students, this is their first exposure to creating boundaries.

These are some tips I share with students who are struggling to care for their friends and have healthy boundaries.

  1. Set limits  – Many students I meet with are uncomfortable setting limits. They tell me, “I can’t tell her no.” “I have to be available.” I give them examples of what limits sound like, and ask them if they think they would be able to say these things to their friend. For example, “I have to study tonight and will be turning my phone off from 5 p.m.-10 p.m.” or “If you call me and tell me you are going to harm yourself, I will call campus police because I care about you and don’t want you to hurt yourself.” I also remind students that when they set limits, they need to follow through. And, I reassure students that limits can be set in a loving and compassionate way. For example, “I really care about you and am concerned, but I’m not a trained professional. And, if you feel like harming yourself, you need to call the Hotline.”
  2. Identify referrals and resources – Students are often concerned that if they aren’t available, their friend will be left alone and without help. I help students identify other resources and sources of support they can provide so they don’t feel solely responsible for another student. I encourage students to tell their friend to call the Hotline, a parent or family member, or 911 if their friend needs help.
  3. Be aware of your feelings – Students who are caretaking often feel angry and resentful. Sometimes they are ashamed of their anger and express that it feels selfish to feel angry when their friend needs them. However, anger can be an important signal that our boundaries are being violated. I encourage students to notice when they feel angry, resentful, or uncomfortable, and consider whether that might be a time to establish a boundary.
  4. Be direct – It can be challenging for some students to be direct, especially students who are raised in collectivistic or high-context cultures. In collectivistic cultures, communication tends to be indirect and a high value is placed on avoiding conflict. When the situation involves two students from different cultural backgrounds, it can be important to talk about communication styles and help them practice being direct.
  5. Focus on your purpose – I remind students that they are attending university for a purpose. By ignoring their own need to study, sleep, exercise, and attend class, they are making choices which take them away from their purpose.
  6. Identify what is in your control – I encourage students to make a list of what is within their control – when they eat, sleep, study; how often they check their phone; who they spend time with; whether or not they go to class. Then, I ask them to make a list of what is beyond their control – whether their friend takes his/her medication; if their friend decides to drink alcohol or take drugs; whether their friend gets angry; ultimately, other people’s choices. Finally, I encourage students to focus on the things within their control and let go of those things which are beyond their control.
  7. Self-care – When students are caretaking, they tend to neglect caring for themselves.  This can take different forms – giving up sleep, study time, exercise. It is critical that caretakers realize they must take care of themselves before they can take care of others. Taking care of another person with a mental health issue can also lead the caretaker to experience psychological distress as well. I encourage students to maintain regular exercise routines, eat healthy, schedule study time, and try relaxation techniques like meditation and mindfulness to remain healthy and academically successful.
  8. Name your guilt – This is one of the hardest parts of setting boundaries. There is usually a fear that by not being available, not checking in, and/or not responding, one is being selfish or even takes the risk of not being there to prevent a tragedy. This is a valid concern, and it deserves acknowledgement. There is a real reason why the student is concerned about his/her friend. However, guilt should not prevent students from focusing on their own needs, self-care, and purpose, and I try to help students find the balance between caring for themselves and others.
  9. Seek counseling – I often refer students to Counseling Services. I explain it can be helpful to have someone to talk to who doesn’t have an agenda. While a student might have friends and family who can be supportive, a counselor can help a student determine what is in the student’s best interest, help the student better understand the relationship, and help the student set healthy boundaries. Sometimes I meet students who are enmeshed. They are involved in a relationship or friendship where boundaries seem impossible. It is especially important in these situations that students have opportunities to speak to a licensed professional therapist.

These conversations can be difficult. Sometimes students get angry with me or express that they simply cannot establish boundaries. But many times, students come back and thank me for helping them. Being a caretaker is often unsustainable, and inevitably a student either establishes boundaries or has to give up being a caretaker due to exhaustion or frustration.

Serving students who are experiencing homelessness, food insecurity, and financial crisis

I recently presented the workshop “Serving students who are experiencing homelessness, food insecurity, and financial crisis”  at the California College Personnel Association’s Annual Institute. There were many participants (standing room only), which reflects the increased interest in these topics among student affairs professionals. Many of us are looking for models, methods, and best practices to serve our most vulnerable students.

Background

The research supports that college students face major financial challenges. Food insecurity is common among college students, and food insecure students are often housing insecure. Food and housing insecurity negatively affects students’ education. Students who are struggling to meet basic needs experience more stress, frequently work more which results in greater part-time enrollment, experience lower GPAs, and often extend their expected date of graduation.

According to the UC Global Food Initiative survey, 19 percent of UC students indicated they had “very low” food security, which the USDA defines as experiencing reduced food intake at times due to limited resources. An additional 23 percent were characterized as having “low” food security, defined by the USDA as reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet, with little or no indication of reduced food intake.

College and University Food Bank Alliance report states drew on a survey of almost 3,800 students at 34 community and 4-year colleges across 12 states – the broadest sample to date – the authors found that 22 percent of respondents have the very lowest levels of food insecurity, and 13 percent of students at community colleges are homeless.

Models/Ideas

An increasing number of campuses have the following types of services:

  • CalFresh Outreach coordinators who work with local Department Social Services to enroll students by prequalifying students on campus
  • Emergency grants for students with unexpected expenses which could negatively impact their academics, such as medical bills and car repairs
  • Emergency housing, which could include on campus options and/or hotel vouchers
  • Meal vouchers/cards, veggie bucks, or other dollars that can be used to get food on campus
  • Dining app that tells students when leftover food is available at campus events
  • Food pantry, as well as pop-up food pantries and food “shelves,” often includes toilettries
  • EBT card readers on campus to allow students to use CalFresh benefits
  • Food Bank distribution on campus

Best Practices

Every institution has unique needs, strengths, and weaknesses. One of the challenges of implementing these programs is determining which best meet the needs of the students in your institution AND align with the resources available. Here are some best practices that can be applied to any institution:

  • Share resources – A great place to start is by joining the College and University Food Bank Alliance (http://www.cufba.org)
  • Document need – Whether you have existing services or nothing in place, you can being by surveying students, conducing focus groups, and gathering institutional data, to determine what students need and want
  • Partner with local agencies – every campus has different town-gown relationships, but nature partners include faith-based organizations, the Food Bank, local non-profits, and Department of Social Services
  • Identify engaged faculty – faculty are often interested in grants, research, and service-learning. Find ways to incorporate these into your basic needs programs and services. Reach out to various departments which may have overlapping interests, such as nutrition and sociology
  • Create a working group – stakeholders may include student leaders, Financial Aid, Dean of Students, Campus Health and Well-Being, Athletics, Campus Dining, and Housing

Resources