How to Find the Perfect Rock
When Laura hired me to manage a group home for teenagers, I was a twenty-five-year-old idealist from the Boston suburbs who had moved to Montana a few years before for school. She was the forty-something director of a program to support young adults as they transitioned from group care to independent apartments.
Laura had a sharp, sensitive eye and didn’t seem frustrated as these young people tested the freedoms of turning eighteen, like letting dishes pile up in the sink or refusing to attend meetings with their case manager. She believed in providing information, support, and choices, and she trusted them to figure out their personal right answers. I believed in offering them parables about the benefits of balancing a checkbook and sorting their laundry.
Technically we were supervisors, and rule enforcers, but Laura loved to question authority. She wore gaudy vests to important meetings with therapists and school teams, trying to disrupt their formality. I gave her a gold lamé vest I’d found at the local Goodwill store and she wore it to a meeting about one of the residents at the local high school. She laughed when she told me later that no one had said a peep about her glittery attire.
Laura also questioned the rules I had for myself. When I struggled in my newly grown-up life, she pointed out the ways I pushed away anyone who tried to help. “I’m trying to listen to you,” she said once, “and you are being disrespectful when you cut me off.” Fed up with my habit of shutting down difficult conversations with a single word, she bought me a baseball cap with “Whatever” embroidered across the top.
As she coached me to treat my inner conflicts with more care, she also showed me more effective ways of relating to the young adults we worked with. During one supervision meeting, she suggested we try making a few bets, to help me understand and predict the residents’ behavior. “I bet you a car wash that she’ll quit high school in the next month,” Laura said of a resident who had begun skipping school. “That’s the side you should bet on. But it’s up to you. Pick the side you want.”
I was aghast. This young person had told me plainly that she intended to graduate. It seemed cruel to bet against her success. Laura assured me that if I bet on graduation I would lose, and gave me one more chance to take the winning side. I refused. When the resident stopped going to school, Laura and I drove her car to the gas station car wash, and I ponied up a few dollars to pay for it.
These bets went on for months. I lost nearly all of them. But I began to understand that by pinning my personal aspirations on these young people I was failing to see who they were and what they wanted out of their lives. To win a bet, I had to pay less attention to their stated goals — the things they earnestly declared about their futures — and start listening to what Laura called their actual goals, the unspoken, natural consequences of their choices. With more practice, I began to see that a teenager who insists she wants a job but never fills out a single application has an actual goal of staying home and watching a lot of television.
Laura accepted these choices without judgment and supported the young adults as they grappled with the results. While I longed for outcomes that reflected well on me, Laura accompanied the young people as they were, for as long as it took, wearing her crazy vests to show that people in authority could be kind and silly as well as strict. What she understood, and what I had to learn through her, was that these young people were about to enter the grown-up world. And the best thing we could offer was a safe place to test out their ideas and plans, while they still had staff members driving a group home van that would pick them up from wherever their plans led them.
Laura’s radical acceptance extended to me, too. Her steady presence and bets helped me hear the dissonance between the stated goals and actual goals in my own life. It began to dawn on me that a young woman with a stated goal of being a writer, who never applies to writing programs or even shows her work to anyone, has an actual goal of working at a group home. Nervously, I asked for the help of a graduate student in the state university’s MFA program and he kindly agreed to read my poems and help shape them into a small portfolio. Not long after, I applied to writing programs and left the job at the group home. While I ended up at divinity school instead, I kept writing and eventually published a book about music and end-of-life care.
Laura and I both left Montana and we lost touch for more than a decade. When she found my website and reached out, she was happy to learn that I still had teenagers in my life — my stepchildren. She celebrated my writing and offered gentle insight and advice about the current version of my gown-up life.
A few months after we got back in touch, I visited Montana for the first time in several years. Laura had just started chemotherapy on the other side of the country. Knowing that she would not be able to spend much time in nature that summer, I offered to mail her a rock from the Clark Fork River that runs through Missoula. She said she would love that. She also said not to worry; the right rock would find me. In a riverbed of millions, the idea of a particular rock showing up seemed improbable.
As I walked down to the bank of the Clark Fork, the north hills spread out above me. For years, residents painted and re-painted a huge peace sign on a microwave reflector on those hills. The original sign, and its lovingly-maintained peace sign, were gone, but I still thought of it as the emblem of Missoula, Montana, when Laura and I lived there.
I was not at the river more than a minute or two before I saw a grey rock with white circular markings, in the shape of a half peace sign. The right rock had found me, just as Laura said it would. She died the following summer. That rock was our last bet. Suspicion versus curiosity, sweaty effort versus yielding to the help that was right in front of me.
I took a photograph of the rock, with the swollen river rushing by in the background, and texted it to Laura.
“You win,” I said.
Jennifer L. Hollis is a writer, music-thanatologist, and the author of Music at the End of Life: Easing the Pain and Preparing the Passage (Praeger). Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Rumpus, and other publications. She was the 2018 winner of the Atlantis Award from The Poet’s Billow, and was a finalist for Breakwater Review’s Peseroff Prize Poetry Contest. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Cagibi, Atlanta Review, and Crosswinds Poetry Journal. You can find her online at www.jenniferhollis.com
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