Sandra Cunning writes, “Someone asked to hear more about my life that was work related. This was a powerful moment for me if it is relevant…
The Love of a Plant
For a time in my career, I worked in mental health case management and supportive housing. For those who are not familiar with case management it is an approach to service delivery that assists persons living with various needs, needs that often are complex and inter-related – such as mental health (or addictions or developmental needs), housing instability, food insecurity, low income, health-related issues etc. When done well, case management works to coordinate services. When done very well, it helps people on their road to recovery. Case management can help people better engage in treatment and achieve housing stability. In turn, this supports other outcomes such as a greater sense of belonging to community. There’s other good news – it not only helps people who use services, case management can help all of us by reducing hospitalizations and emergency department use.
In my work I was responsible for overseeing case management services and a great team of case managers. I was often heard to say to my staff, “remember the only difference between us and our clients is the side of the desk we sit on.” Obviously, there were immediate differences. Our clients struggled with mental health, physical health, income, housing and food security. If our clients didn’t have these needs, they wouldn’t need us. (Personally, that is my not-so-secret dream). My point was that, regardless of who we are or what our life circumstances, we have the same basic needs, desires and struggles. We all need food, clothing, and shelter. We crave safety and a sense of belonging. We desire to shape and determine our lives. I’m not saying anything new. We learned this from Maslow.
However, we sometimes get so lost in our work… in the details… in the demands… in our own sense of self-importance we lose sight of these very fundamental aspects of life – ours and others. And then there was that day when my own words came at me full force. I was working in a shared space housing different service organizations. As I was returning to my office from a meeting, a female client, stopped me and asked me if she could have some tape. She was soft-spoken and I estimated her to be in her fifties – about my age. She was receiving services from another agency but was using one of the shared client spaces to work on an arts and crafts project. I didn’t know the exact nature of project, but it resembled an arts and crafts and it seemed important to her.
My philosophy around most requests is the following: 1) is it within my power to assist? 2) is the request going to cause harm to the person or someone else (morally or physically)? If the first answer is yes and the second answer is no, I go for it. For some reason, I invited her to my office while I searched for tape. I could have gone to the supply cabinet or asked the reception desk but, for some reason, I invited her to my office.
Over time, I had worked to create an office that would be a safe, comforting space for me and for others – a space where people felt safe to share what was most important to them at that time. The best part of my office was the colour – it was a warm yellow. It felt like the sun shone all day in that office which was odd since my window faced north overlooking a pebble and asphalt room, obscured, in part, by the concrete corner of the next building. It wasn’t a big space. It held a small bookcase above which hung a white board covered with scrawling writing in multiple colours outlining different projects. In the corner a small, round table with two chairs and a floor lamp tucked tightly into the crease of the corner. (I always like lamps in my office. They create a sense of calm. Overhead lighting always feels cold, overbearing, and sterile).
I won’t lie though, my office is always a bit of a disaster – organized disaster – but a disaster, nonetheless. Lots of piles. (Marie Kondo would have a field day with me). The degree of chaos on my desk was directly related to the number of demands, projects or reports on the go – piles that I desperately was searching through to find my tape! Some of the things that brought calm to the chaos of my desk were pictures and plants. I had one variegated spider plant that grew in a round, yellow happy face pot. It always brought a smile to my face and others as they entered my office. It had the appearance of someone who has just gotten out of bed with their hair is spiking all over the place as if to say, “now, that was a really good sleep.” The other plant that adorned my office was one given to me by a team I once led. It was a stunning Anthurium. If you aren’t familiar with Anthurium it is a large, leafy plant with beautiful blooms that are heart-shaped, waxy and red in colour with large yellow stamen piercing from the centre. It is a gloriously vibrant plant that makes you feel as if you have been transported momentarily to a tropical oasis. Mine was about four feet in diameter, filling the top of a low, lateral filing cabinet.
When I invited the client into my office – she immediately sat down and appeared to relax – I’m not sure why, but it was if she was visiting a friend. As I was searching through my desk for the tape, my back to the client, I heard a small voice say, “That plant is beautiful. I used to have a plant like that when I had my own home.”
My hands stopped moving papers. In fact, everything stopped. I turned around slowly and sat down in my chair immediately across from her – looking in her eyes. I remember being at a loss for words – which if you knew me is a rarity. I finally said something to the effect that this was my favourite plant because it came from my former team. I loved it because it always reminded me of them. For her, it reminded her of what she once had – something I took for granted. We sat for awhile and she went on to tell me about her life and journey. I won’t share that because it is her story to tell. However, I will say that her life was not unlike everyone else’s. And then things changed, and she found herself in a shelter trying desperately to find a home again – a nearly impossible feat in a city with some of the highest costs of rent and longest waitlists for supportive housing in the country.
In that moment everything changed. My vision of life changed. My vision of my work changed. My vision of myself changed. She and I were the same. We were approximately the same age. We both had our life journeys. We both were working on our projects. We both loved the same plant. The only difference was the side of the desk on which we sat.
I managed to find the tape. I wished her a luck in her search for a new home and asked her if she would please keep in touch and let me know how she was doing when she came into the other agency. She completed her arts and crafts project that day, came back and thanked me for the tape and the visit.
I didn’t see her for awhile until one day I received a message. The name didn’t strike me at first and then I realized it was the same woman with whom I shared the love of a plant. I called her back. She wanted to let me know she found an apartment! I shared her excitement… and I knew what I had to do. I knew from our conversation that she was still using services at the other organization. I went out and bought an Anthurium for her new apartment. I left it at reception with her name on it. The plant sat for awhile and then it was gone. Just before I left my job to start a new role, I received a call from a friend to tell me about her new apartment and her plant.”