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Snapshots

“I hope, wherever you come from, 
there is someone who holds your story. 
Someone who remembers you when you 
were knee-high to a grasshopper.”  
–excerpt from “Who Holds Your Story” by David Pitonyak  
 
As a writer, I tend to notice, document, hoard interesting bits of human lives into my brain, and save them in a private stock pile like a squirrel. Small notes in my phone for later, scrawled reflections or observations in the margins of agendas, notebooks. In my phone is a running tab on observational human behavior that I found interesting, troubling, curious.

There was the man at the YMCA who swam wearing multiple gaudy gold rings and splendid gold chains tangled in his thick, salt and pepper chest hair. Back and forth in never ending breaststrokes, his jewelry would catch the sun in the overhead pool skylight and glint across the lanes. 

There was the exasperated mom I overheard in a coffee shop lamenting to a friend that her daughter was going to lose her full ride if she didn’t get her shit together and get over that eating disorder phase.

The single mom at the airport force feeding a breakfast sandwich to her three children, alternating bites like baby birds in a nest as the TSA line inched up. 

The post on a neighborhood Up For Grabs Facebook page offering used, natural deodorant, with the disclaimer that it caused a rash. 

While these anonymous observations are collected innocently for no apparent reason, other than what it shows me about the curious nature of humanity, there’s a distinct difference in documenting lives of people we know, people we support, people we provide services to more intimately. 
 
One of the more challenging conversations we’ve had at Starfire over the past year is the importance of storytelling and the delicate line we must tow in telling someone else’s story. The question of “who holds your story” tugs at me and is especially important for nonprofits to consider.  Are we crafting people’s stories to fit our own purpose? How do we, as nonprofit leaders, as social media marketers, as fundraisers and donor relations professionals and grant writers, as public relations professionals, share a story that is honest and truthful and respectful and genuine?  How do we tell the truth of the matter, give real life context, without violating the depths of someone’s personal experience with trauma or pain? 


Furthermore, should the holder of someone’s story be a human service organization? Is a family’s story held sacred when it’s also needed for grant reports and to leveraging funding? Where is the line? How do we know if we’ve crossed it? 
 
Starfire uses “a secure online database powered by University of Cincinnati Center for Clinical & Translational Science and Training” to document and measure the outcomes of our work. That’s how we put it in grants. Of course, this is important to do: is what we say we are doing getting done?  Are people with disabilities becoming more connected to the community?  Are people with disabilities finding jobs? Are creative projects being launched?  Are we taking people with developmental disabilities lives seriously with our time together?  But there’s also the real story of our work that documentation simply cannot tell. Things like: spontaneity, intentionality, beauty and creativity. Or the opposite – intolerable experiences like getting tangled up in “service snafus” or emergency respite or litigation. 
 
Internally we wrestle with how to share this work – the behind the scenes work of Community Builders, the brave first steps in creating a project, and the new work of supporting families leading creative projects in their own communities. We send emails and newsletters and produce Annual Reports, produce videoslead trainings, launch podcasts, and write blogs. We make a commitment each time: to honor each person’s story truthfully, delicately, and with the expressed permission and participation of those sharing their lives with us. Because these stories don’t belong to Starfire. Sure, our fingerprints are all over the scene, but they aren’t stories that we as a nonprofit organization can hold. These stories are held by people – as ordinary as you and I, stories that are held by moms and dads and brothers and sisters, coworkers, neighbors and friends. A snapshot in time celebrating the struggle of making something good, something more, happen together in the world. 

 

Related Posts:  

Case Files and Memories 

Beer   
 

"Motherhood Changes You"

“I’d be curious to see what you’re doing in a few years.” There was a pause and a sort of knowing glance in my direction.  I sat in the passenger seat 24 weeks pregnant with baby #1. “Motherhood changes you,” he said.

I took offense to this, felt my face flush with annoyance, stuttered something unintelligible, and immediately began collecting facts for my case against this person.  This person who assumed I’d be less capable in my work once I became a mother, the tone implied (or the tone I perceived) was that I’d be less dedicated to my career once I saw how cute onesies could be on tiny bellies.  It felt as if this comment undermined my years of learning and work down to one assumption: that after a bit of motherhood, I’d probably take an easier route, a soft exit and leave the field altogether.  I’d abandon my career and stay home because babies, or perhaps work at a bank.

It’s been nearly 2 years since that sentence and it still bothers me.  Both from the perspective that I know I am a bad person for being such a hoarder of grudges, a habitual collector of cynical thoughts and from the perspective that perhaps I’ve interpreted the conversation wrong for the past 26 months.

So now, two years later, with two under two, and six weeks into maternity leave perhaps it’s the right time to reflect on that statement.

“Motherhood changes you.”

It’s made me softer in my approach with people.  I’ve actively worked on not immediately venting about a rude email from a service facilitator or a text message sent way too late from a parent.  I try to roll my eyes less, and breathe a bit more.  And while I’m softer with others, and I’m harder on myself, because motherhood changes you.  Every parent and especially mothers can relate to there not being enough time to get everything done.  (Whatever everything is…)  There isn’t enough time to accomplish this mystical everything, and there’s even less time to be bitter about emails or texts or a sentence that's pestered you for two years...

I have two visible and adorable onesie-clad reminders at home at how fast time moves, how quickly life passes, and by bedtime, there’s just not enough time left over to do the godforsaken dishes let alone to be angry.  There is certainly zero energy left to stoke the fires of annoyance throughout the night, to keep vigil the grudges.

Scientifically, it’s true.  The maternal brain is changed in complex neurological ways.  It is chemically wired to respond to the needs of another.  "Those maternal feelings of overwhelming love, fierce protectiveness, and constant worry begin with reactions in the brain." The brain becomes wired to love and care for another in ways you physically and neurologically were not able to before.  I am better at what I do because of this, because motherhood changes you.

I am so, so tired.  There are tiny hands smelling of peanut butter and blueberries and crayons and milk touching me all.the.time.  And cries and whimpers from one room while shouts of mama and giggles ricochet from another.

I am constantly multitasking while reminding myself, that for these few short weeks this is all I really need to accomplish.  Being present, being here.  Wiping little noses and butts endlessly and snuggling and cuddling, and absorbing on my never-clean-for-long shirt toddler tears of jealousy and newborn tears of frustration.

The fatigue of learning to be okay with just being with each other, day in and day out, and slowing down long enough to just be together with someone (even little someones) has made me better at my work.  I’m better at waiting while listening, and better at accepting some days are grand beautiful days and some days are “is this day over yet?” days.

I am working on being a better person in my life and not just a better staff in my work, because motherhood changes you.