A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Monday, February 24, 2014

City Travels

I am at the Rainier Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) in South Seattle. A friend who has been on welfare and used food stamps recently drove me here to observe this welfare office for my class on Poverty and Inequality. I have never been in a DSHS office before, and its not what I expected. Much like my experiences is poor rural areas in technologically developing countries, I expected to find misery here, but there’s just regular old humanity—only maybe a bit more interesting.
If my friend had not given me a ride, I could have taken a bus to a nearby bus stop, which is in this block, but I appreciate the convenience and especially the company. When I’m in lands foreign to me, I like to travel with a companion. My friend was able to park in one of the spaces reserved for people with disabilities, so getting into the door (and out of the rain) was easy this morning. There is a fairly large parking lot for maybe 60 cars, and it is two-thirds full. My friend says that some days, particularly at the beginning of the month, it’s overfull, but today parking is easy. As far as I can tell, there aren’t other social services in this compound, and the nearest hospital is in another neighborhood, so this building’s convenience for clients is about its location in a neighborhood where many people use its services rather than in its connection to other services. There’s a MacDonald’s close-by, as well as a Baskin-Robbins and a gas station mini-mart, so there’s fast food available, but so far as I can tell there’s nothing healthy. The parking lot and the office seem safe at this time of day. Perhaps I would feel differently at night, but the office closes at 5:00 pm, so lighting is probably not usually an issue.
The clock over the receptionist tells me its 9:35. It’s a round clock with hands, not a digital one, and I know from teaching many high school students living in poverty, many of them immigrants to the U.S., that some of them can’t read time this way. The place feels much like a driver’s license office to me: there are three rows of nine chairs each for waiting and working on forms, probably forty clients, and a soft murmur of people working on forms in groups of two or three. The people who are here seem comfortable with each other and with the place: comfortable, but not chatty. There is no coffee or vending machine or play area that might tempt a person—adult or child—to stay. This is a place to get business done.
Though the office doesn’t seem unfriendly, the main goal seems to be efficiency rather than friendliness. Clients can’t help but stand in the line to sign in for services, which always extends about seven people deep from the desk to the front door. The desk is also marked with a bright green sign, so that if you were to push past the line, the sign would tell you what the line is for (as long as you read in English or Spanish). Here people sign in and talk with one of two receptionists about what they need today. One receptionist is a white man, and the other is an African-American woman. The conversations are generally quiet, so I can’t overhear them, unless someone can’t read something, and the African-American woman tells that person in a loud voice what the document says. She sounds a little impatient, perhaps because she seems to repeat the same things so many times. She is generally professional and efficient, though when an older Asian man who doesn’t speak much English steps up to check in with the white man, she greets him affectionately: “Hi, my doctor! How are you?” and they both laugh warmly before he takes his seat. Restrooms are near the front desk. They are clean and orderly and both the men’s and women’s rest rooms have changing stations. (My friend, a fellow, checked the men’s room for me.)
The room’s signs are another mark of efficiency: bright green signs label each section in English and Spanish. There are phones around the room with labels about the needs that can be met on the phone: childcare services, health care, customer service, and unemployment benefits. They, too, have signs in English and Spanish. The only signs that do not give directions are patriotic signs with images of the American flag or the statue of liberty saying things like, “Vote!” These patriotic signs are only in English. After clients sign in, they sit in one of the rows of chairs to wait to be called, as patients wait at a doctor’s office. It is the emphasis on efficiency and order that remind me of a driver’s licensing office. The long wait reminds me of a doctor’s office.
In contrast to the driver’s licensing and doctor’s offices, however, few people speak English. Most people seem to be older immigrants from Asia (maybe Vietnam or Cambodia) or immigrants from East Africa (I hear Amharic and smell the tang of Ethiopian spices.) Two women wear head covering. At the back tables, small groups cluster with translators as they work on forms together. There are just a few people speaking Spanish. One Spanish-speaking woman is with her son, the only child I see. In the hour that I am here, the clients who do not seem to be immigrants are mostly African-American, though I do see one woman who looks white, and my fellow and I are white.
After checking in, clients get help from interpreters in filling out the forms if they need it. Then they return their forms and wait in the seating area to be called. Clients who need EBT cards (food stamps) are called to one of five seats with partitions between them to provide privacy. The social worker sits on the other side of the counter by a computer. Twice, I hear a social worker call for a translator. Twice while I am there, someone comes from a door to small offices behind the counter area to interview people for welfare.
People here seem calm, and though movement is clearly slow, there is no sense of hurry. My fellow tells me that when he has come here with welfare applications, he has already completed the forms and the whole process takes about two hours, most of it in waiting. Clients applying for EBT cards need about an hour to an hour and a half, though the meeting at the counter takes only 15-20 minutes. My fellow says that at the beginning of the month the wait is longer because clients who apply for EBT cards after the fifth of the month will have to wait until the next month for help with food.
Most people who are working with translators seem to be working on “The Application for Cash or Food Assistance.” The application is available in the lobby and is also available online. It’s six pages of questions and is available in many languages, though from the help tables, I gather that applicants who have migrated from other countries still need a lot of help.
The application warns applicants, “We use SSNs [Social Security numbers] to check identity, verify eligibility, prevent fraud, and collect claims. We exchange information with other agencies to manage our programs and follow the law. We may also give this information to law enforcement agencies trying to catch fleeing felons.” Thus, parents who have immigrated without documents or who are in trouble with the law would be discouraged from applying, even if their children are citizens and need help. Additionally, the application reads, “If applying for cash assistance, all adults (or authorized representatives) in the household must sign,” so those with others in their homes who do not have documents or who are in legal trouble would probably need to lie.
The African-American woman who checks people in notices that my fellow is still in the waiting area and comes over to see if he needs something. She has gone out of her way, and he says to me, “That was sweet!” I think, “Yes, that was sweet,” and I wonder, perhaps too cynically, if she would have offered this help to someone who does not speak English.
Now that I seldom travel out of the country because I’m concerned that my disabilities after brain tumors and their treatments will cause problems, I travel to see lands I’ve never seen in my own city.
I’ve often wondered how we might create a more just society in the U.S., and maybe it begins by seeing one another’s spaces. Or, more accurately, maybe it begins with those of us who live with much privilege seeing the common spaces of those who do not live in privilege. For me, in this country as well as in my travels abroad, glimpsing snippets of lives of people who are different than I am is not depressing, as I have often anticipated it would be. The lives are ordinary lives, inspiring in their ordinariness, and these glimpses remind me that we are not so different, but that our resources are different, and that our world could be different.

And one day it might be. On my hopeful days, I nod my head when I remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s proclamation: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Fate and Grace

Last week, I had three hallway conversations in the school of social work with people with great hearts who are just weary. I have been weary for most of my life, though--ironically--brain tumors and their treatments have given me the gift of energy because my disabilities  now require me to allow space and time in each day for rest and reflection. The disabilities force me to slow down and to accept limitations on how much I can do each day. In this way, my disabilities are a gift. 

When I was growing up, I noticed that I was more tired than most people. On my first camp-out, when I was six years old or so, all of the other campers in my tent got up with my counselors to see the sun rise. Only I continued to sleep. When they returned and I woke up, they told me about the beautiful colors in the sky, wanting to make me regret that I had slept. I was sorry to have missed the lovely sunset, but I did not regret sleeping. 

I was so tired as I was growing that while my peers watched Saturday morning cartoons, I slept. The only cartoons I watched were "Scooby Doo" and "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" because they came on later in the morning. In high school, I had mono, but not from the kissing virus (alas), just from wearing myself out. 

I felt that fatigue was my fate. I connected with the poetry of fatigue, like Tennyson's "Marianna" ("She said, I am weary. I am weary" though thankfully never with the next line, "I would that I were dead.") I recognized Frost's weariness at the end of "Stopping by Woods," when his narrator said "I have miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep." (It was the repetition of the line with which I identified: Frost's narrator and I were on the treadmill of exhaustion.) And I loved Roethke's "I wake to sleep and take my waking slow." Yes. That is how I lived my life. 

I believed in the Puritan Work Ethic, not because I had reflected on it and come to believe that idle hands do the devil's work, but because for it was a universal truth that one should stay as busy as possible and work as hard as possible. The first time it occurred to me that this was a cultural value and not a universal law was on a summer adventure in rural Michoacan, Mexico, after my second year of teaching.

I was on a volunteer project with an organization called Amigos de las Americas, and it was our goal to help as many people as possible build latrines at their homes. Only I really thought of it as "I am building latrines for poor people." My fellow volunteer Juan, who was born and grew up in Salinas, California, but whose parents were from Mexico and spoke Spanish in the home, helped me understand that the people we were there to help had values of their own, lives and beliefs worth respecting, and the project was a mutual one, not a charitable one. 

Sometimes I would be digging deep into hard soil and young men would sit around and watch me work. "Something is wrong here," I thought to myself as I continued to dig and they continued to watch. I thought I had something to teach them about hard work, but for sure they had something to teach me about sitting around and watching. (Ann will tell you that I learned this lesson well.)

At a retreat at the end of the summer, my fellow volunteers from various pueblos in rural Michoacan gathered and reflected on what we had learned. I quoted from Simon and Garfunkel:

Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobble stones.
Looking for fun and feelin' groovy.

I continued to move too fast in my world back in the states, but I remembered often the lesson of slowing down that I had glimpsed but not learned in the Michoacan jungle. 

When I was married the first time, my husband (yes, husband. It was a long time ago) often called me by the nickname "Weary Mary." It's not that I was lazy or inactive: I loved to hike and bike, and I worked hard at my teaching job, often taking on extra responsibilities like coaching and chairing committees. I was just so tired. 

I could not understand why I was so darn tired all the time. My weariness affected my self-image, my sense of what I could do and be in the world, my studies and my play. I struggled to overcome my exhaustion as I expected more of myself than was healthy. 

On Sept. 11, 2001, when planes crashed into the twin towers in NYC , I took solace in Pablo Neruda's poem, "Keeping Quiet," which read in part:

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Though theoretically I understood that there was violence in overwork, I also taught teenagers who needed skills andy hope, and I believed that they needed me in order to get those things. (At times, I may have been right.) I glimpsed again the danger of overwork from friends in Guarjila, El Salvador, and read the words of their martyr, Oscar Romero:

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
 of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of
saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
 day will grow....
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of 
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's
 grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the
 difference between the master builder and the worker.

I believed that overwork was unhealthy, but I continued to do it anyway. In my last year before diagnosis, for example, I was at the gym by 5:00 each morning to swim or lift weights and do yoga before getting to school by 7:00. 

Also, throughout my 12 years of teaching in public schools, I promised myself that my public school students would receive from me the same kind of attention and education that my private school students had, though in a private school I taught four classes a day of around 15 students each and in public schools I taught five classes a day of up to 41 students. Therefore, I worked late each night and worked both weekend days, though by the end I took at least a half day off on the weekends. I helped start three new schools. I took leadership positions. I worked for a national education organization. I was always exhausted. 

I knew this overwork was not healthy. I posted Lao Tzu's quotation, "One must know when to stop," on my classroom wall, and a young teacher read it aloud and asked me accusingly, "Do you?" The question was rhetorical. Beside my desk, I posted Thomas Merton's caution about overwork:

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence, and that is activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of this innate violence.
To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence.

The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace, because it kills the root of the inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

I knew that I was overworking, but I did not stop. Perhaps this overworking was an addiction. Perhaps this overworking was a reaction to some place in me that knew my time in this world was limited. Perhaps it was connected to an ego that believed that every moment I had was needed in order to do work that I thought only I could or would do. 

My brain tumor was finally diagnosed when I was 43 (diagnosis took a long time, though when they found the tumor it was probably 43, too), and I finally had an explanation for so many physical oddities throughout my life: fainting, trembling with weakness, struggling athletically on my left side, weariness….

My brain tumor diagnosis, though upsetting in some ways, made me feel sane, like there was a reason, after all, for the way I had felt all my life. I was not lazy. I was not crazy. I was not a malingerer. I was sick.

I struggled with my lack of energy after neurosurgery, and I began to struggle even more after radiation for my second brain tumor. I was sleeping 14 hours at night and napping three hours in the afternoons. My allopathic doctors told me that there was nothing they could do to address my fatigue, so I searched for a naturopath and found an excellent one in Dr. Eileen Stretch.

Instead of dismissing concerns that she couldn't explain, Dr. Stretch labelled fatigue and an odd vertigo as "rare and peculiar." She loved seeking to solve the mysteries of my rare and peculiar symptoms. And I loved it that she took my concerns to heart. 

After a couple of years of taking many supplements, I started taking "SamE," a supplement that is in a powder like Kool Aid and tastes bitter like lemon rind. When I experimented with taking two packets a day, I began needing less sleep and feeling more awake during my waking hours. Then some blessed medical researcher souls developed a genetic test, a simple blood test, that confirmed my body's need for SamE, and I started taking three packets a day.

Now I sleep 10-12 hours at night and nap from 45 minutes to two hours, getting maybe 13 hours of sleep in a day instead of 17 hours.  Sometimes, I don't even take a nap. I continue to take rest seriously and to limit the commitments I make, being sure to leave time for yoga and meditation and a nap if I need it. I am less weary and more alive.

Being sick has humbled me, teaching me that the world could survive and lots of good things could happen without me. It has taught me that I am no good to anyone if I am not good to myself. It has taught me to prioritize how to spend my time, limited as it is in my days and in my life. 

In this humility, I am learning to trust the world beyond my efforts.  But still, like Jacob, I wrestle with my angel. I am a student again, and I love what I am learning so much…I love being a student so much…that I am tempted again to overdo it. There is so much in the world that is interesting, and there is so much to learn. There is so much to give. 

So I have not so much slowed down because I have become wiser as I have slowed down because I must. I still want control, which I suppose is at the heart of overwork. Though I feel that I have been a good sport about my brain tumors, their treatments, and my disabilities, I do not want another one. I have learned so much from my two tumors, and in many ways my life has been enriched by them, but if I were in control, I would not have another. (I have my next MRI a week from Tuesday, and these semi-annual MRI's make me think a lot about the possibilities of a new tumor, so if I were to have control, I would like to have it now.)

Friday I had a test about how well I have learned my lesson of unflattering my days. I went to an introduction to doing a master's thesis for my program. The thesis is not required, but it seemed like something to check out: I could pursue a question of my own in some depth, and have guidance in that pursuit. As I listened to all of the requirements, however, I realized that although the project might be great fun, I do not want to invest my limited time and energy in this way. I am learning that I need to make choices. 

I will continue to learn and to love my life, and I will continue to do what I do well, so I will limit what I will do. Perhaps I am learning. And perhaps I needed these tumors to teach me, though by that I do not mean that some intellectual force planted the tumors in me. I don't think of God or God's place in my life in that way. And, to repeat, I do not want another. 

Perhaps by slowing down and giving myself space for breath and poetry, I am learning about grace. I do feel great grace in my life now, since my tumors, in a way that I did not before my tumors. In this way, though I would not have chosen them, my tumors have brought me grace, as Ann and I pray together each night before dinner, "Oh God, Remind me that all of life is grace. Let me respond in gratitude."