In the Crisis Room

Apparently, every five years or so, I write a poem. The last one was about visiting Las Vegas for the first time.

Below is a new one, based on my internship answering suicide and crisis hotlines at a behavioral health agency. I wrote it for a class assignment in which we were asked to reflect on our internship experience.

When Logic performed his song about suicide at the Grammy Awards last June, my supervisors staffed up in the crisis room because they knew call volume would spike. That’s not because people suddenly got more desperate. It’s because they took the song’s message to heart: You are not alone.

If you or someone you know is in distress, there are people waiting to talk to you right now at 150 call centers across the U.S. that answer the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.

Here’s my poem about what it feels like to work the hotlines.

In the Crisis Room

My phone bleats like a lamb
needing feeding.

Around me my coworkers chatter, snack,
compare shades of nail polish
and then their phones ring
and they are asking:

“Any thoughts of suicide today?”

I am a calm center in the storm of noise.
I am the eye of the hurricane.
I am the hostage negotiator, the expert, the genius.
I am the idiot, the stupid bitch who can’t help,
who couldn’t talk her way out
of a paper bag.

My phone trills like a mockingbird.

Will it be a kid in tears?
An aging warrior, taking off his armor
long enough to dial?

I show my colleague how to conference call.

I ask a caller how he’s kept going, feeling this way
feeling worthless, alone
feeling like nothing
for months, for decades.

I document. I triage. I call the police.

I wait for the phone to ring.

It rings. No angel gets its wings.

But a human voice is trapped on the other end,
like a firefly in a jar.

I pick up the phone: “I’m happy to talk with you.
Are you having thoughts of suicide?”

“No, HELL no.”
“I don’t—I mean, not really.”
“Doesn’t everyone?”
“Like I’m stupid enough to answer THAT question.”
“Gonna call the cops on me?”
“Yes, I’ve thought about it.”
“No, but I’m scared about my friend…”

My phone keeps ringing. I keep answering.

Keep helping. Keep floundering. Keep listening. Keep validating.

My phone keeps ringing. I keep answering.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255


The Oasis of Yes

A wall with tiles that say "yes" over and over

In grad school, I’m practicing critical thinking. Lots of it. My classmates and I are learning about the patterns in society that create poverty and inequality. As social workers, hopefully, we’ll be disrupting those patterns.

Building critical thinking muscles can get exhausting. So it was a relief to take my first improv class last week, for a few reasons:

  1. Improv encourages expansive, open thinking.
  2. Improv says “yes” instead of “no.”
  3. Improv closes the gap between thinking and doing.

The workshop I took was called “Constructive Collaboration: Practical Improvisational Skills to Advance Your Partnerships.” The instructor was Andy Sloey, the general manager of The Improv Shop here in St. Louis.

Social Work and Improvisational Comedy

Andy told us that a social worker, Viola Sporin, created improv comedy in Chicago in the late 1930s. She used theatre games to get young people from different social and cultural backgrounds to connect. Her son, Paul Sills, went on to found the legendary Second City improv comedy theatre.

The connections between social work and improv run deep. In both, you have to react in the moment. You have to listen deeply, whether to your scene partner or to your client. You have to be nimble and navigate situations that turn on a dime.

Andy emphasized that improv is NOT about trying to be funny, or burnishing your own ego. It’s about uplifting your teammates, setting each other up to succeed. Ideally, colleagues at a hospital, school, or social services agency do this as well.

Yes, And

The driving ethic of improv is “yes, and.” This means that you accept whatever premise, word, or idea your scene partner throws out there, and then find a way to build on it and elevate it.

This is essential in social work as well. To be skilled professionals, we need to display unconditional positive regard for our clients. It doesn’t mean that we condone destructive behavior, or that we always agree with them. But positive regard for them grounds us and is our starting point.


Another improv principle is that all of us are “enough.” If I’m part of the improv team, it doesn’t matter how good my acting skills are, whether or not I’m quick-witted, or anything else: I’m part of the team and will help to build the stories we create together.

This idea of “enoughness” is essential for social workers. We need to believe in the strengths and capabilities of our clients, no matter what obstacles they face. And we need to believe in our own enoughness. Otherwise we won’t last a day in the field.

Improv builds listening skills. It requires active vulnerability. It demands that we trust ourselves and others, and that we maintain a sense of play. All of these concepts connect with my coursework.

The Return of Critical Thinking

There’s been a lot of discussion about sexual harassment and casual racism in the improv world. It’s a white-boy sport (most of the time), and at its worst, can become a land of bro-dom.

African Americans here in St. Louis might enjoy improv for many of the same reasons I do, but their context for it would be different. It’s one thing to ask a roomful of middle-class white people to let their guard down and be vulnerable with each other. It would be another thing to ask a roomful of black St. Louisans to do the same, because they’re already navigating vulnerability daily out in the world.

Would it be possible for the stakes to be low, in a room where people of different races are letting their guard down?

Improv is an oasis, for sure. But which travelers in the desert get to drink from that well of “yes”?

And for whom is it just a mirage?

Image by Glen Scott via Creative Commons.


A teapot depicting a bird in a cageI’m obsessed with this tea set my parents got as a wedding gift 50+ years ago. It had been sitting in their basement for years, and wound up making the trek with me out here to St. Louis.

There are 2 distinct birds depicted on the teacups, pitcher, sugar bowl, and other items in the set. I guess they’re supposed to be (literal) lovebirds, though lovebirds don’t look anything like that.

Are they stylized doves, maybe?

A vase with the image of a bird in a cageThey make me think about the restrictions and freedoms of pair bonding, mating in captivity and out of it. Each bird is depicted in a cage with a flaring ribbon. The bars of the cages are wide enough that either bird could get out, if they wanted to.

On only one item are the birds shown together, and it’s unclear if they’re both inside the same globe-shaped cage, or both hanging on the outside of it.

Sugar bowl depicting birds on or in a globe-shaped cage

I’ve mentioned before that I admire the mixture of loyalty and independence my parents have achieved in their marriage. Monogamy is not a cage, gilded or otherwise.

But it is a framework—and we can reject or embrace that frame.

What bars am I putting up between myself and love?

What structures need to be in place to keep love standing?

Photos by Anya Weber.


A relative asked me recently what the most amazing thing is that I’ve seen so far in St. Louis.

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO, seen from below.

The Gateway Arch is not the most original answer, but it’s true.

When Eero Saarinen won the contest to design this monument, to celebrate Thomas Jefferson and U.S. westward expansion, the judges told him that his design was the best, but they also weren’t sure anyone could execute it. Apparently the general expectation was that at least a dozen people would die in the construction. As it happened, no one did.

Photos of the Arch don’t do it justice. When you stand under it, it is both immense and lighter than air. It gleams and defies gravity.

When you go up inside it, you get inside a little tram, along with 7 fellow tourists. The tram looks a bit like a space shuttle. It is cramped and claustrophobic. As you go up, you don’t have a view out to the city, but you have one of the pipes and concrete girders holding up the structure on the inside.

At the top, there are only narrow windows–larger ones would have blown the structure apart. You get a sweeping view of St. Louis, including the brown and fast-rolling Mississippi River. (I’d heard that Mark Twain called the Mississippi “too thick to drink, too thin to plow,” but it turns out he said that about the Missouri River.)

The Arch symbolizes conquest, ingenuity, and domination. The American hunger for more. “Settlers” weren’t willing to settle for anything other than liberty, for lands rolling out in front of them for the taking (regardless of the people who’d been living there for centuries, or millennia, before).

Standing inside the top of the Arch, my body could feel how far off the ground I was. It even seemed that I could feel it shifting under me, though that was an illusion, probably just the vibrations of the other souls riding up and down in the trams.

From the top, I could see Illinois. I could see the courthouse where the Dred Scott case was tried. I could see Busch Stadium.

I could see my new home city, in all of its muddy, gleaming, lively, and conflicted beauty.

Arch photo by Anya Weber.




The Long Goodbye

A see-through heart floating in water.
I started applying to graduate schools in different cities last October. So for almost 8 months, people close to me have known that there was a good chance I’d be leaving Boston this summer.

There’s an advantage to a long goodbye. When you tell people you’re leaving, their love for you pours out. I’ve had people say that they wish they’d gotten to know me better, that our workplace will go to hell in a hand-basket without me, that I’m brave, that they’ll miss me, that it’s been good knowing me.

It’s been lovely to feel this outpouring of affection. But it’s made me wonder—why don’t we tell each other that stuff regularly?

Why don’t I tell my best friends at least once a week how much I love them, how important they are to me, how brave and sweet and impressive they are?

Emoting like that feels awkward, especially for us stoic New England types. Some of us need an excuse to tell our loved ones how much they mean to us.

We never know how much longer we have with anyone. With each goodbye, I’ve had to tangle with the fact that I may never see this particular person again. The reason that’s top of my mind is that I’m moving out of state for at least a couple of years. But honestly, it would be true even if I’d committed to living out the rest of my days here in Boston.


My evangelical friends tend to be pretty good at telling each other how much they care. There’s a tradition of praying for one another in small groups, in which you ask God to help people with whatever their issues are, to strengthen them to meet those challenges.

This is normal in religious Christian circles, but not in agnostic ones. Usually it takes something climactic, like a wedding, a funeral, a graduation, or a departure from town, to draw expressions of love and good wishes.

If we know our friends love us, then why must it be stated aloud? Why can’t we just believe it silently, and assume that we all know it about each other?

There’s an element of risk in stating those feelings. Kind of like being the first one in a new romantic relationship to say “I love you.” You put yourself out there, risking rejection, risking being thought awkward and weird, risking mockery.

Our culture allows verbal expressions of love in romantic relationships, and to some extent in family relationships, but not so much in friendships. I do hear younger women telling their platonic friends “I love you” as they say goodbye at the end of the night. But that feels like a reflex, rather than something that carries emotional weight.

The higher the risk, the greater the potential reward. It is a holy thing to have someone express their love verbally, because they are making themselves vulnerable. They are taking their armor off.


Not everyone is lucky enough to have close friends. For many years, I doubted that my friendships were as real or solid as those I saw around me. I used to hold myself back a lot, which made it harder for people to know me. I’m getting better at opening up, but it’s a skill I’m still learning.

Some people have been wounded so badly that they shield themselves from closeness. Others have pathologies that make it much easier for them to drive others away than to draw them in.

So if we have friends, we’re fortunate. And we should struggle daily not to take them for granted.


Let’s make an agreement. Let’s start telling our friends that they’re the best, that we’re so happy to have them around, that we know how rare true friendship is, that they do it well.

If it feels weird, that’s cool. Life is weird. Humans are weird. Relationships of all stripes are weird.

If we put our hearts on the line, more and more often, it becomes easier to do, and we get more adept at it.

Anything that increases the amount of love in the world can only be a good thing. Verbalizing that love shows us how strong a foundation we have right under our feet—if only we’d look down to see it.

Image by seyed mostafa zamani via Creative Commons.

Two Choices

Two large trees leaning away from one anotherI’ve narrowed my grad school choices down to two.

Two schools. Two cities. Two different states, both in the Midwest. Equal scholarships. (Equal amounts of student debt looming. But let’s cruise right on by that for now.)

I know it’s an illusion that my life will now divide neatly, one way or the other. It’s not like one choice will be bad, and the other good. Both will be complex and challenging and fascinating and rewarding.

Both will test me. I’m hoping that both will unfreeze a part of me that’s been iced in for many years.

This is a huge turning point. And it’s also absolutely routine.


Every moment, our lives divide in this way.

As immortalized in the pre-goopy Gwyneth movie Sliding Doors, the difference between missing a train and catching a train can yield two completely distinct life paths.

Not that it’s ever really that binary. It’s just easier for our minds to grasp an idea broken into two neat chunks.

I’m trying not to get hung up on making “the right choice.” I’m relishing the opportunity to visit both cities, and to see which one gives me that live-wire feeling–the feeling that zapped me when I decided to apply to grad schools in the first place.

You know. That feeling of, “I’m about to blow up my whole life…But I think it might be OK.”

Photo by Gillie Rhodes via Creative Commons.

Laughter at the Rape Crisis Center

Statues in a fountain depicting women laughingYou might think it would be a gloomy place: the office where survivors of sexual assault go for therapy appointments. The phrase “rape crisis center” conjures images of institutional, grim rooms, with people sitting in the scuffed-up waiting area weeping quietly.

The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center is the opposite of that. Its waiting area is a bright, colorful space where clients can drink tea and relax on a comfy chair before seeing their therapist. It’s nothing fancy, but it feels safe and welcoming.

I’ve been volunteering at BARCC for a couple months, checking people in for their appointments. It’s rare to see anyone in obvious distress or in crisis mode. Most are composed when they come in to the office. Some are cheerful, and some are straining to appear so. Others are quiet, and hesitate to make eye contact. I only have their initials in the calendar, not their names.

When people come out of their appointments, they appear physically lighter. They move more easily. Sometimes their therapist will walk them out, and they’ll be laughing together.

Isn’t that the essence of healing? To walk out of a therapy session with a brighter aura, cracking up about something?

I haven’t done a fundraising walk for many years, but this spring, I’m jumping on board BARCC’s Walk for Change. I’ll share more about it as the date gets closer.

Their 24-hour hotline is 800-841-8371.

Learn more about the work they do in Boston and beyond.

Image: Laughter, by sanpani, via Creative Commons.

On being an unpopped kernel

Blue paper sign reading, "Watch out for 'old maids'. Though we sift our kettle corn the occasional unpopped kernel will show up..."

Danger, Will Robinson!

Friends, I’m obsessed with popcorn.

What’s not to like about it? It’s the crunchy ambrosia of movie theaters and carnivals.

Over the years I’ve invented my own gourmet flavors, like buttery ginger. Usually these days I make it with olive oil and salt, sometimes with nutritional yeast to give that cheesy taste.

Air-popped, it’s reasonably healthy, unless you drench it in butter. And it fills you up.

Each kernel is unique in shape, I’ve been told.

As a kid, I remember referring to unpopped kernels as “old maids,” and my mom was displeased. “I don’t like calling them that,” she told me. “That makes it sound like, if a woman doesn’t get married, she’s an ‘unpopped kernel’ and she’s not worth anything.”

I was annoyed that popcorn had become political. The next time we were eating some, I carefully referred to “unpopped kernels” instead of “old maids.” My mom thanked me for using better language. I wanted her to just let it go.

But now I see that she was onto something.


Some Christians—and others whose religions include an afterlife—see all of us, here on Earth, as unpopped kernels, waiting to be thrown in the kettle of heaven to explode into our true, full identities. (Though I guess the fires of hell might have the same effect.)

I don’t see buy into this “waiting room” theory. Our heaven and our hell are alive within us at all times, just waiting to be activated. And we’re not in God’s waiting room. We’re in God’s world.

So what does it mean to pop?


Unpopped kernels feel smooth and cool to the touch. They’re appealing to plunge your hands into a huge bucket of.

But if you bite one unexpectedly, it’s awful. You’re expecting a delicious crunch, and instead, you get a broken tooth or a loosened filling.

Those little kernels have a mission in life: to scatter to the winds, and create more corn plants. Or, to be eaten by humans or animals, and to return to the earth as fertilizer.

As humans, we can “pop” through doing good in the world. We can pop through finding something we enjoy doing, and immersing ourselves in that experience of deep flow.

We pop through getting married and having babies.

Or through becoming a soldier, and putting our life on the line for our country and our brothers and sisters in arms.

Through throwing ourselves into a creative endeavor, even though we think the story or song we’re writing won’t make sense to anyone else.

There are many sources of heat to transform us.


Maybe our job, as earthly kernels, is to subject ourselves, as much as we can, to the right kinds of fire. The loving kind. The kind of the spirit.

The kind that takes us out of ourselves, like a popcorn kernel, whose insides become its outsides.

If kernels could think, would they fear that transformation?

Or would they be excited?

Danger! Do Not Walk on Ceiling

Sign on the ceiling of Boston's North Station, saying "Danger: Do not walk on ceiling."
There’s a sign on the ceiling of Boston’s North Station. It says “Danger: Do not walk on ceiling.”

Here’s a better close-up of it.

I take the train from North Station up to Maine fairly often, and always mean to ask someone at the station, “What’s up with that sign?”

It’s a warning that begs to be violated. Like Bluebeard telling his young wife, “You can go into any room in the castle—just not that room.” Or God telling Adam and Eve, “You can eat from any tree in the garden—just not that tree.”

When I was a kid, I remember getting up on a high slide. My dad told me to keep my feet together as I went down. I was going to do that anyway, but since he told me to, I spread out my feet, and fell off the slide. Two stitches.

I’m wondering if the issue was a missing “because.” My dad probably felt the “because” was obvious: “…because otherwise you could fall off the slide and hurt yourself.”

In Genesis 2, God offers a broad but scary “because”: “…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

But that begs another “because,” kicking off a chain that winds through the centuries, from Eve to us: “Why will we surely die? What does that mean? What’s wrong with knowledge? Don’t you want us to understand good and evil, so we can choose good? And PS, why will I fall off the slide?”

There’s a level of dizzying choice when someone tells you not to do something, but doesn’t tell you why. It’s a compelling fairy tale convention. As soon as the hero is told not to do something, we immediately, viscerally want her to do it.

Does that urge show our sinful fallen nature, as my Baptist friends believe?

Or is it just our innate curiosity, the thirst that drives so much of our positive and negative progress?

In any case, the first chance I get to walk—or dance—on the ceiling of North Station, you better believe I’m taking it. Unless someone gives me a good reason not to.


The Fine Art of Arguing

“My brother,” writes G.K. Chesterton in his autobiography, “was born when I was about five years old; and, after a brief pause, began to argue.”

The two brothers (Cecil and Gilbert) were both journalists and well-known writers in post-Victorian England. Chesterton is best known for his writings on Christianity, his Father Brown mystery series, and his strange and disturbing novel The Man Who Was Thursday.

I was touched by Chesterton’s description of his brother and their relationship. I was also impressed by the distinction Chesterton draws between arguing and quarreling.

GKC seems to see arguing as engaging in stimulating debate: the kind that makes your own thinking sharper, by honing it against someone else’s perceptions. Both people walk away feeling smarter.

Quarreling, on the other hand, means having a heated personal disagreement, where feelings get hurt and one person walks away feeling smaller.

As someone who is uncomfortable with conflict, it’s hard for me to appreciate how much other smart people enjoy verbally jousting. They take pleasure in it! For me, it always feels personal, like I’m peeling my own skin off by trying to state why I disagree with someone else.

GKC, from all accounts, was a genius at it. And it didn’t get in the way of his friendships. He was happy to dismantle a friend or brother’s faulty logic, without putting the relationship itself at risk.

Our political discourse today involves lots of quarreling. Lots of name-calling, cat-calling, and mud-slinging.

Let’s take a page from the Chesterton brothers’ book, and learn to argue better.

Here’s a terrific essay by Gracy Olmstead on G.K. Chesterton and why we need him today.

Photo by jon collier via Creative Commons.