On saying, “No”

If you search the Web for “addicted to busyness,” you will find a raft of articles, blog posts, quizzes, and the like, trumpeting the dangers of nonstop doing. There is so much to do, so much to encounter–around every corner, in every link waiting to be clicked, in every email to be opened.


Say, “I am flattered, but I can’t” to the next committee invitation. Plead a prior commitment when invited to yet another cocktail party or dinner. (You do have a prior commitment; it’s to your own self-care.)

I have four priorities in life: family, girlfriend, my job, and specific volunteer tasks. I am not taking anything else on, because what I have is sufficient.

I take buses as a method of slowing down. A yoga class or a meditation group is, for me, just another deadline I don’t want in my life. I turn off my electronics, look out the window, and watch the sun set over the Hudson River. I contemplate every person, every event for which I am particularly grateful in that space of time.  I get home, have dinner, and am ready for a restful evening.

My perfect job: Why you should support Her Justice

HerJustice_logo_tag_rgb_300x71px(Reminder/disclaimer: This is all the personal brain dump of me, Mary. It doesn’t officially represent Her Justice, any other organization, or any other carbon-based life form in this or any other universe.)


I really wasn’t looking for a job for myself in the spring of 2009. There was nothing wrong with the financial services data quality position I had. I had great coworkers, good managers, interesting work, and a very fine compensation package. Yet…it didn’t grab my soul.

Then I stumbled across a job posting on Idealist.org for a “Legal Services Manager” with Excel, SQL, Spanish, and experience in a volunteer-based organization.

Well, now. That sounded a lot like me.

A cover letter/resume email, some interviews, and a few weeks later, I walked in the door of Her Justice as an employee. A couple of years later, I was asked to become the IT manager, and happily accepted.

There is never a day when I am not happy to go to work.

I am free of many of the common plagues of technology staff and managers. Of course, there is a lot of work, and some long hours and weekends. That is the nature of an IT job.

My coworker-users are smart, good-humored, and willing to learn. The senior managers encourage constant communication among all staff. My manager’s also incredibly supportive of my investigations into technology that might improve our legal staff’s ability to train and mentor volunteers, and counsel clients. I have support from a great outside technology consulting firm. I genuinely like the people I work with.

One of my less-technical responsibilities is to extract data for reports to our funders. The numbers tell just a part of our story. I look at ways to put our clients’ legal needs in context–the neighborhoods they live in, the linguistic, ethnic and economic isolation that can aggravate a woman’s situation, and so on.

That’s the point–it’s all about the clients.

Our clients are low-income women who live in New York City. Often they are survivors of domestic violence, but that is not a requirement to get help from us. Most have children. All are working very hard to get free of ugly situations. The amount of multi-tasking it must take to gather all the documents, notes, photos, and other evidence for a matter, perhaps hiding them from an abuser, while having to deal with social services agencies for food and financial assistance, and also clothing and feeding small children and getting them to a caregiver or on the subway to an office in downtown Manhattan…hurts my head.

I sometimes get to see the evaluations the clients send in. The comments are written in careful script, squeezed into a few lines. Over and over again, in Spanish and English, clients express thanks not just for the legal services they’ve received from volunteer attorneys, but for the dignified, respectful relationships the volunteers and Her Justice staff have fostered with them.

I wonder what effects the visits to our office, have on the daughters of clients. One of our staff attorneys told me a story about accompanying a client and her little girl to an immigration interview. “The girl carried my briefcase, wore my jacket….and at the end, she asked, ‘Can I be a lawyer someday and help people too?'” Who knows how many of the little girls who have sat in the Her Justice office may someday make it through law school?

The volunteer attorneys, too, send in evaluations. They praise the quality of the training and the manuals authored by our legal staff, and they value their courtroom experience highly. (If well-educated attorneys at the top firms in NYC sometimes find the system aggravating and chaotic, what shot at justice could an unrepresented, possibly under-educated, stressed, low-income woman possibly have by herself?) Her Justice staff attorneys, in turn, prize the mentoring relationships they develop with the law firm associates and partners.

Her Justice is always looking for ways to more effectively help clients. Forensic accounting firms and other non-legal corporations are volunteering and providing incredible new help to women, as well. What they are contributing is fascinating and wonderful.

This is all why I love my job.

I’m not stuck in a data center or server silo. I get to hear what my legal services coworkers do. I get to meet clients in the reception area or hall, and get to wave at cute children as they pass my office on the way to or from a play area. I get to continually evaluate and improve all our technology to best use the donor dollar and support and grow our mission.

Who wouldn’t be happy to get up and go to work?

Please support Her Justice. If you are in NYC, consider forming a team to take part in our annual Story by Story stair climb on October 23, 2014.

Thoughts for Easter egg hunt attendees–a personal rant

My parish has an Easter egg hunt every year. It started as an event for the children of the parish and immediate neighborhood, but word of it has spread via parent-oriented websites. This year, we are scrambling (!) to boil in excess of 1200 eggs for the event. We love to extend hospitality, and deliberately neither charge admission nor sell tickets, but it does get a little crazy-making.

If you are taking your child(ren) to a church-based Easter egg hunt, please think about what the event is supposed to signify, and what goes into creating it.

  • This is supposed to be a fun event, not “Lord of the Flies Meets the Easter Bunny.” Yes, in many respects the whole egg symbolism thing is a re-branding of a pre-Christian tradition. That doesn’t mean “love your neighbor as yourself” doesn’t apply. Do not let your children shove, push, and take eggs from other tots.
  • The eggs did not buy, boil, and dye themselves. Volunteers spent hours in their own kitchens or in a community kitchen, and spent their own money, on these eggs. That is why there is a limited supply. There are not infinite eggs for infinitely acquisitive children.
  • The people putting this together have had other things on their minds in addition to this event. In many cases, the church people have been at church on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday as well as on Sunday morning. Lay people who are lucky enough to have full time jobs have been at those too–putting in enough hours so they can actually attend church on the holiest days of the year. By Sunday morning, they’re tired.
  • If someone says something Christian to you, don’t steam about “proselytizing.” Look, if this egg hunt is at a church, what did you expect? On church property, at a church-sponsored event, people are going to say things like, “Christ is risen.” There are secular egg hunts out there–you just chose to be at one that is not secular.
  • Eating the eggs may not be a good idea. They have been boiled days in advance, and were probably hidden very early in the morning. Unless it’s really cold outside, those eggs have been a little too warm for comfort.
  • If it’s a free event, cool your jets on complaints. If you have a chance to speak with one of the volunteers, “Thank you,” is much easier to hear than, “Why didn’t you people [insert complaint]?” If you have ideas about how to make the event better, sign up to volunteer next year.

The Unsung Heroes: Donors of Unrestricted Gifts

(Remember: This is an un-official, un-endorsed, un-pasteurized, un-anything post not officially representative of any organization, individual, or any carbon-based lifeform except for myself.)

As of 10:30 this morning, March 13, seven people are dead and more are still missing in the wake of a gas explosion/building collapse in Manhattan’s East Harlem neighborhood. The Red Cross has been responding for just over 24 hours at this point, and the volunteers and staff are rotating on and off 12-hour shifts. The dedication of every Red Crosser, on and off the scene, is terrific.

I’d like to send a shout-out to the heroes of this response who aren’t on the scene and probably never will be: the people and organizations who have donated money to the Red Cross without specifying that it be used for a specific disaster.

At 9 a.m. yesterday morning, no one knew that there were going to be dozens of people in need of food, clothing and shelter in a couple of hours. Thanks to thousands of donors who had previously sent money without saying, “I want this to be used only for X disaster,” the Red Cross could send a truck with shelter equipment (cots, blankets, etc) for 100+ people from their upstate warehouse, down to the city right away. Meals could be solicited as purchases or donations from commercial kitchens that have strict food safety standards. Clothing, comfort items, and other immediate necessities were already on hand to be given out immediately to survivors.

The volunteers and staff of the Red Cross in the NY area have responded to 2100+ fires, floods, storm emergencies, and other disasters since July 1 of last year. The vast majority of them never made the news, but for the people who lost their homes and belongings, each event was shattering.

The donors who give to the Red Cross and other disaster response groups, without limiting the recipients of their help, are the silent heroes of response. Their generosity ensures that people who are poor, un-“TV-sexy,” economically and/or linguistically isolated, all get help when their lives are shattered by a local emergency.

So, to all those who have donated in whatever size, who are great-hearted enough to give freely without a pre-picked cause–thank you!

As I start my 51st year

I am thankful.

I didn’t get where I am today without help from many, many people–and I know I got born into substantial privilege. It wasn’t money privilege: we lived under the poverty level at times.

I was born white, to English-speaking citizens of the United States, who were highly literate and valued education, valued their girl child as much as their boy child, and gave me the tools I needed to be employed and housed in this society. I did nothing, nothing to earn that good fortune. Yes, I work hard, but I never forget that I wouldn’t be able to work that hard without the support I got from my (functional) family and (functional) community.

Thankfulness isn’t just for a Thursday in November. It’s for every time you wake up.

MaryO’s rules for effective complaining

My Adorable Sweetiepie writes to me, “You are probably the most effective squeaky wheel to ever rub an axle the wrong way.” She’s also told me that my “high dudgeon” is a bit unnerving (well, the exact word she used was “scary.”)

I operate with three rules and one precondition when I complain about a situation:

Precondition: It has to be something that does have a realistic resolution. Otherwise, I’m just whining.

  1. I don’t exaggerate, misrepresent, embellish, or lie. I have independently verifiable proof that the situation existed and affected me.
  2. I ask for a concrete, reasonable resolution that will satisfy my needs without humiliating, embarrassing, or unnecessarily inconveniencing the creator of the situation.
  3. When the situation is resolved, I stop complaining, say “Thank you,” and acknowledge the effort that went into the resolution.

I have found that this process keeps relationships intact, and allows for good will to stay and grow.

For those of you who may not be exposed to “stewardship talks”

This is what I had to say on Sunday, September 29th, at my parish, as the first of a series of “Stewardship Moments” by parishioners:

On Friday afternoon, I had been pretty sure what I was intending to say today. But after I listened to Bishop Dietsche’s remarks at the Cathedral yesterday [Saturday], I turned to Father Gabe and said, “The bishop just blew up my stewardship talk.”

We–Father Gabe; Theresa Goldsborough, and I–were at the opening session of the diocesan Indaba process. “Indaba” refers to a continuing conversation of listening and learning, among groups of lay and clergy representatives from sets of 3 diverse parishes–in our case, a suburban New Rochelle parish, and a rural church in Orange County. This is a parochial manifestation of our stewardship campaign slogan, “Connect and commit.”

What does Indaba have to do with stewardship?

Quite a lot. We call ourselves “Anglo-Catholic;” “Catholic” means that we do not live unto ourselves as a congregation, but that we have real ties to our brother and sister Christians in the life of Jesus Christ.

The stewardship we engage in here at St. Luke’s–the commitment of our time, talent, and treasure–is visible in our infrastructure of buildings, with electricity, running water, and staff, that our pledges support. It’s visible in our outreach programs that, although funded separately, are the product of many people’s time and talent, and could not exist without our real estate and our location. Those, given as a gift from Queen Anne to Trinity in 1684, and to us in 1820, are a sheer gift. No one here did anything to acquire this land. It is our responsibility and our pleasure to preserve and use all these resources.

But our stewardship here reaches out to the good of the wider church. There is much that St. Lukers do that is not visible on Sunday morning.

Our assessment–the money we contribute to the diocese–helps keep lights on, toilets flushing, and clergy serving around the diocese. St. Luke’s parishioners and clergy serve on a variety of diocesan committees. These include the Adjustment Board, to help parishes in financial difficulty and the LGBT concerns committee. I am part of the biennial Acolyte Festival, which draws attendees from many of the poorest parishes in the diocese. Over the years, St. Luke’s has fostered vocations of priests, scholars, and other church servants. We have participated in the formation of dozens of seminarians from all over the church.

Now–this can lead to our “marinating in our own magnificence.”

We are very proud of our block, our clergy, our amazing music, and we are proud of our good works.

We live in a bit of a “glossy bubble.” We are also, as Bishop Dietsche puts it, in a silo. I would posit that we are also in internal silos within St. Luke’s–service by service; social group by social group; committee by committee.

We can fall into assumptions about St. Luke’s and St. Lukers, because we think we know everything there is to know about our own parish. Be wary of that.

The Indaba process is challenging us to listen and learn humbly from parishes across chasms of location, class, ethnicity, and worship style. I suggest that in praying over our use of time, talent, and treasure internally here at St. Luke’s, we each examine what “silos” we might have built.

Examine and pray about the possibilities of changing up your worship time, your volunteer patterns, and see what else God might have in mind for you.

_We_ “are to do go, to be rich in good works, gentleness, and ready to share.”

God bless.

Ten emergencies in 24 hours

(Remember–everything I write is from me, Mary, and no organization.)

On Monday, July 22, I took a vacation day from my day job. I am the technology manager for a nonprofit firm that helps low-income women, the majority of them domestic violence survivors. I put in around 50 hours a week in and out of the office. I love my job, adore my coworkers and managers, and have no interest in doing anything else for pay.

It was a rare day for me, with no business, personal, or church obligations.

Because I am a volunteer senior responder, I get reports every four hours, around the clock, from the Greater New York Red Cross chapter, listing every response to emergencies in the five boroughs of New York City, as well as Nassau, Suffolk, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan and Westchester counties; and Greenwich, Connecticut.

I also get emails from a news service that sends notifications of every fire-related emergency in New York City. I am on four or five mailing lists at the Red Cross, that are designated recipients for these and other subjects.

I open everything I get, and I read most of them.

While I was sleeping (and maybe you were, too)

8 oclockWhen I woke up a little after 8:00 a.m. on Monday morning, I saw that I had 18 emails from midnight on. Between midnight and 4:00 a.m., two responders had gone to two fires, one in a building with 34 apartments and another in a housing project with 218 units. A third responder had given financial assistance to an upstate family in a single-family-house fire.

By 8:00 a.m., there was only one additional fire, in Westchester, that a responder from the area had gone to. That was a good thing, because there were exactly two people available in the response unit in NYC.

From breakfast until lunch:

By lunchtime, 8 adults and 3 children left homeless by the Westchester fire, had gotten housing, financial and other assistance. Four Red Crossers, two of them bilingual, had gone to their assistance.

I’d gotten 15 more emails regarding requests for government documentation of apartment vacates, reports of a car crashing into a tree, and several requests for corrected information on clients. (It’s hard to type into a keyboard when standing in the street, up to your ankles in water and surrounded by scared people all looking for reassurance at once. Typos happen.)

Here’s more–the twenty emergencies that had taken place between midnight Saturday and midnight Sunday, were being evaluated and assessed by caseworkers in the office on Monday morning, to be sure that the families affected were getting everything they needed. I don’t get emails about all that work.

After lunch:

A fire broke out in an 83-unit apartment building in Brooklyn. This was a “10-75″, the FDNY designation for a fire that needs multiple units to respond. The American Red Cross in Greater New York responds to every 10-75 in an occupied multiple dwelling, in New York City.

Around 2:30 p.m., a fire in an apartment complex in Orange County went to a third alarm–the fire service designation for a major fire. Their local responders got sent on their way to that incident.

And then, all hell broke loose.

fireAt 3:49 p.m., the “10-75″ was transmitted for a fire in a 41-unit building in Hamilton Heights, in Manhattan. 16 minutes later, the fire was designated a third-alarm, and the Emergency Communications Center at the Manhattan Red Cross office went into high gear.

Here is what happens for a third-alarm fire in New York City:

  • Any available warm bodies in the response area start to fill an Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) with snacks, heater meals, and cold and hot water.
  • A dispatcher begins a “call-down” to every NYC hotel that works with the Red Cross, to determine how many rooms are available if housing is needed.
  • Disaster Health Services volunteers and staff are notified, along with Public Affairs teams.
  • Responders–both volunteer and paid–are contacted to ask them to come in before their shifts begin, to provide extra help. (That’s tough on the people who have full-time jobs, especially folks who are already juggling child care and commuting needs.)
  • Client caseworkers are notified to stand by.
  • The available responders are sent out to the fire, two in the ERV, and at least two in a van, to begin to assess the situation. If there are trainees, they are sent along to help and to gain experience.

When I saw the report, I called the dispatch center to see if they needed me. “Get in here!” was the answer.

By the time I arrived, the day volunteers had gone home or to work themselves, and the fire had grown to a fifth alarm. There were four responders on the scene, and four people in the communications center. We were answering the regular number of calls about Sandy recovery, CPR training, blood donations, and information requests, as well as coordinating and verifying information received from the Office of Emergency Management, Housing Preservation and Development, and communications from the previous three-alarm in Orange County.

Then at 5:16 p.m. another “10-75″ came in, for a 109-apartment building fire in Manhattan.

At 5:20 p.m., part of the roof collapsed on the 5-alarm fire building. For us, this meant that housing was almost certainly going to be required for many, if not all, of the tenants.

For the next two hours, the on-call Disaster Sheltering volunteer team was called and began to assemble. The on-site responders worked with the Office of Emergency Management to get access to and set up a nearby public school as a reception center/shelter. Logistics workers rolled out a truck to assemble and transport shelter supplies, including cots, blankets, chairs, signage, and so on.

At 5:28 p.m., we were notified of a fire in Nassau County, for which we would have to contact a responder.

And then it got worse

At 6:46 p.m., we were were notified of a “transportation incident” at LaGuardia Airport. The Office of Emergency Management asked us to stand by. Another request came in to find a source for 150 meals, if they were to become necessary.

As soon as the airport incident had been reported to us, workers in Disaster Staffing sent out a blast email and phone call to all trained volunteers, asking them to call in if they were available. So, that resulted in a cascade of calls to the dispatchers, from regular but off-duty volunteers who had that number in their speed dials.

At 6:53 p.m., we received the closing status update of housing and financial assistance provided to the survivors of the Orange County fire.

By 8:00 p.m., I’d gotten 52 more emails about all this.

At 8:20 p.m., a “10-75″ was transmitted for a fire in a 2-family building in Brooklyn.

At 8:25 p.m., a “10-75″ was transmitted for a fire in a 60-unit apartment building in Queens.

For each fire, someone in the dispatch center calls the FDNY Fire Operations unit to confirm that the building does contain residences, and that we will be needed. Fortunately, the 8:25 fire proved to not need a Red Cross response.

A long-distance call from a panicked mother

I answered a call from a woman in the Midwest, whose adult child had just moved into the Manhattan fire building. Her child had texted her with some disturbing comments, and the mother was frightened for the health of her offspring. This was very tough–the child was over 21, I had no actual proof that the mother was who she said she was, and the mother was telling me things that were really the child’s private business.

In one short phone call, lots of major issues had to be dealt with on the fly:

  • If the adult child is as sick as the mother says, they need immediate medical attention.
  • If they do not want medical attention, as an adult they can refuse it.
  • Any information about the child’s present location, is by Red Cross policy, private and not shareable with anyone without consent. I got the head of Disaster Health to give me advice, and her decision was to call 911 and get the proper professionals on the scene to make the evaluation.

It was a very tense phone call. I was trying to support the mother, get the needed information about the person at risk, and get advice from the mental health professionals who were on another line.

At the same time, we were receiving status updates from the Manhattan fire response team and the airport team, via email and phone.

We were getting emails about car crashes around the city (we weren’t needed), a request for flood assistance from a home in Connecticut (we were), and more calls and emails from volunteers who were just getting to their email or phone messages.

I finally left some time around 10:30 p.m., I think. I had to be at my day job at 9:30 a.m. the next morning, and I hadn’t eaten anything since lunch.

By 12:20 a.m. Tuesday, I had received 101 email messages regarding disasters and the work Red Crossers were doing in response to them.

The concept of “office hours” means nothing in an active emergency; at the end of the typical business day, every available paid Red Cross worker and volunteer was operating at full speed.

I’m sorry some non-Red-Cross people think we are such slackers.