Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Last week, I attended an orientation at Seattle’s Juvenile Detention Center because my current goal is to work with small writing groups of people experiencing trauma. I was excited to learn from Pongo, the organization leading this project, and to work with these youth. (When I was teaching high school, some of my students went to “Juvie” for short or long stints, and I loved those kids. This would be a new way to serve and get to know students I loved and feel could live life on their terms, terms that would be healthy for them and their communities.)
At this orientation, however, it seemed that my disabilities raised concerns: for the trainer and for me. Usually, when someone thinks I can’t do something because I’m disabled, I work to prove them wrong, but this time the concerns seemed legitimate: I couldn’t take my cane into the area where we would work with teens, but that was easily solved. More difficult were the upcoming 50% increase in teens housed there because teens from a Kent facility housing youth who were being tried as adults were being moved to the Seattle facility. The facility will be packed, and there isn’t yet a clear plan about how to manage the changes. Some teens from Kent are from rival gangs: nothing to be casual about. The center is hiring 50% more staff, so new staff will be learning their jobs: again, nothing to be casual about.
After the training, the Pongo director contacted me to say that he would check back in after things settle down in a couple of months, but for now there are too many safety concerns for me to volunteer there. I agree, but this is still disappointing.
Two years ago, I attended a training from Pongo, a group that writes poetry with incarcerated youth and other struggling groups, using poetry as a means of self-expression and personal value.
My own experiences with teaching writing and using writing for myself after brain tumors has been that writing can be an important, ongoing part of healing. Lots of research, such as a 1983 study by Psychologist James Pennebaker and graduate student Sandra Bell , concludes that writing heals trauma and grief.
So in my post-tumor, unemployed and disabled life, I’ve been trying to find ways to support others struggling with loss and trauma. Right now I’m volunteering with three writing groups: with homeless young adults, people with dementia, and GLBTQ people over the age of 50.
When I left my career in secondary education in 2012 because my disabilities didn’t allow me to continue that work, I researched careers as a mental health counselor for people with life-changing health conditions, reasoning that I could still sit, listen, and think and that my disabilities could be an asset, as I understand what it’s like to have such a condition. From this research, I concluded that I would need an MSW from a well-respected school, and my goal-oriented self started working towards my next career immediately. I thought I’d become a one-on-one therapist, and I took five years in a Masters of Social Work program at the University of Washington in order to reach that goal, but after receiving my degree, I realized my disabilities make getting licensed impossible. (The university time wasn’t wasted: I needed to time to heal and adjust that I wasn’t allowing myself, and while in school I learned about group therapy and poetry therapy.)
Most recently, I’m focusing on sharing opportunities for writing as healing. This focus started years ago, with writing this blog and getting to know groups that work with writing as healing. In April, 2016, I attended a poetry therapy conference, but realized their approach didn’t sing to me. I also attended a Pongo training, which sang operatically to me. It hit the high C, and I thought, “This is what I want to do!” However, I wanted to graduate from the UW with my Masters and give myself more time to heal and write before applying to volunteer with their organization.
I graduated last December with my MSW, and I now volunteer with writing groups for homeless young adults, people with dementia, and LGBTQ people over fifty. The work fills my heart.
This summer, I applied to volunteer with Pongo and was excited by all that I would do and learn. The first invitation was to work with addicted adults in a center that provides housing and works to reduce harm rather than end peoples’ addictions when those addictions have persisted through multiple programs. At this site, I thought I might also get involved with a UW study. One bus away: perfect. But that possibility fell through when the program there ended (or never started, I think.)
Then I was going to join a group that went to the state’s Mental Hospital for children. Though the commute would have been about an hour or more south of Seattle, and I was concerned about fatigue, I was excited to work with the experienced and dedicated leader at that site.
Before starting that work, a position with the juvenile detention center near my home opened, and I switched to that team. Now that’s not going to work, so my goal-oriented self is flummoxed. What’s my next goal? I need to find it fast.
This goal orientation has directed my life, and that orientation persists even though I have often found that goals weren’t that good for me, and I “learn” over and over that I’d do better to listen to what life and my soul say to me. I’m learning that again now. I wonder if the lesson will ever take root.
As a child, I over-learned this goal orientation. I remember trying to reach a goal in the mile when I was in middle school.
Usually when I ran around the track at night, trying to please my father and run the mile in eight minutes, my lungs felt hard and my throat hurt. I felt like I was drowning: I could not get a deep breath. My legs, deprived of oxygen, felt heavy, and the way to where I started seemed so long—And yet I had to run that dastardly circle four times.
Each night, my dad held the timer, a stopwatch that clicked away the seconds. He, my younger sister Jennifer and my little brother Matt, and I jogged dutifully. My siblings and I all had times to meet: whoever met the goal that my dad had set got to go to dinner at The Angus Barn, Raleigh’s only five star restaurant.
My brother and sister had both made their times a week or so before this night, but they were still running, as my dad expected. I had not yet come close to my eight-minute target, and tonight was my last chance. I didn’t care about the prize except that I didn’t want to be the only one left out of this family celebration. I was the oldest child after all. Not meeting my goal would be shameful.
On this last night, a slightly cool mist settled over the track, and my breath came easily. My legs loved the stretch as I glided around the circle four times; then I went two more because running felt so good. I could have run all night. Now I understood why people ran: they must have felt this good all the time. I don’t remember my mile time, but I easily beat the goal.
Since that night, I’ve worked hard to unlearn the goal-setting habit. I will not time myself or set a goal of writing a certain number of pages or saving a certain amount of money. I won’t count calories or go on a diet. I suspect goal-setting succeeds in our hyperactive culture, but it seems to me that focusing on the present instead of the future is healthier.
As a high school teacher in the 1990s, I bristled at the career pathway movement. Should we be teaching teenagers that they should have a career goal already? Does that paralyze exploration? Joy?
I am still trying to learn what I glimpsed forty years ago. That night when running felt lovely, I promised myself that I would live for those moments when my breath comes easily, and I seem to glide through the night.
I wonder if the lesson will ever take hold.
Saturday, November 11, 2017
My Auntie Myra died Tuesday at the hospital after she was hit by a car. She was walking (always walking) in a crosswalk, and a car going 20 mph hit her. This piece is in her honor and for her children, my cousins Anna and Mark, for her brother, my father, and for the extended family and friends who loved her. She was an energetic soul, an adventurer with a generous heart, and I know we will all miss her.
The last time my partner Ann and I visited Myra, Anna, and Mark at Myra’s condominium in Bel Air, Maryland, Myra had ordered a pizza-sized chocolate chip cookie for us all. The only thing I can remember in Myra’s refrigerator when I had visited her house was a passel of containers with broccoli slaw, so I’m pretty sure the giant cookie was an aberration, a celebration of our connection.
Myra has been a deep force of affection in my life for as long as I can remember. We had a lot in common. When I was quite young, not yet in kindergarten, and was visiting my grandmother in Spring Hope, North Carolina, Myra (whom I called Auntie at the time) invited me to sleep with her in the double bed in her childhood room. She warned me that she moved around a lot in her sleep. I was so excited to sleep with my Auntie, and I slept soundly that night, but apparently Myra did not. I guess I moved around a lot in my sleep, too. If I remember right, she said that at one point she woke up, and I was climbing over her.
Whenever Auntie came to visit our home in the Raleigh suburbs in those early years, she would open her arms wide and give me a full body bear hug. I remember my dad walking in the kitchen when she was hugging me once, and he said, “Oh god.”
In her best impersonation of Edith Bunker, she said to him, “Aw, c’mon, Archie,” summoning the television character my dad loved.
Auntie and I both loved to read. One of the first books I remember from her is Aesop’s Fables, an oversized children’s book that I read so many times the deep red and green cover fell off. (It’s not surprising that she was hit walking to the library where she volunteered.) I also remember that she gave me Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the first book I read twice. I finished the last page and immediately turned back to page one. What a gift!
Throughout the decades, when I visited her Bel Air home, I stayed in her guest bedroom with the “Bloom Where You are Planted” framed embroidery. Along with the words, she had stitched a red flower in full bloom, and I always imagined her stitching this piece, the sadness that it suggested and that she never spoke about to me. In the life I witnessed, there was so much love: for me, her children, her cats, her work….
Myra worked in the schools, like I did. I’m not sure what her title was, but in recent decades she worked at the district level, responsible for getting truant kids to go to school. I remember that sometimes she would take them food, clothes, and school supplies and drive them to school herself.
We were also alike in our love of adventure. My dad would laugh about her letters from trips where she would write things like, “Having a great time. My body hurts from the day’s hiking, and the single bare bulb over my bed attracts so many moths that I can barely see.” My dad thought it was hilarious that she was having a great time in such a place: his idea of camping, he once told me, was a Motel 6. I loved such adventures, too.
Myra and her daughter Anna came to Seattle several times. Once was for Ann’s and my commitment ceremony, so I see her photo amidst the well wishers every day. On another visit, the four of us biked to the Red Hook Brewery, a ride Ann and I did fairly often though it was long and exhausting. About a mile from the brewery, I noticed that Myra’s back tire was flat. “I thought I was just a lot slower than the rest of you,” she said. “I’m exhausted.” We had lunch and Ann biked home to get the car, a respite for us all.
Myra might have been more politically liberal than I am. I can’t say that about many people.
I miss her deeply. I feel like I have a weight on my chest that makes it difficult to breathe, but my Auntie remains with me, too, in some way I can’t explain, some way that goes beyond the memories and is more like my skin.
Last week, I wrote an In Memoriam piece about my uncle Tommy, who died last Friday. Auntie Myra died Tuesday. I'm hoping this will be my last In Memoriam piece for a while, but Mom says bad luck comes in threes and Ann and I shouldn't take the stairs. "Be careful," she said. You, too. Be careful.
Friday, November 3, 2017
My uncle Tommy died yesterday after battles with two cancers. This piece is in his honor and for his wife, my aunt Mary Ann, his kids, my cousins Lori, Jeff and Kenny, and the extended family and friends who loved him. He was a kind man, a man of much love and faith, and I know we will all miss him.
The last time my partner Ann and I visited Tommy and Mary Ann at their home in Davidson, North Carolina, he drove Ann and me to a coffee shop to meet with a previous professor of mine. As he drove, he remembered driving to his first dates with Mary Ann. “On the way to meet her,” he told us, “I would get so excited and nervous that my palms would sweat and my heart would race. I would say aloud over and over, ‘I’m going to see Mary Ann! I’m going to see Mary Ann!’” As he recounted the memory, he tapped both hands on the steering wheel, excited just to remember it.
Usually the family storyteller, Mary Ann sat quietly in the passenger seat, watching him with a soft glint in her eye that had lasted through three kids, several cats and at least one dog, and fifty-four years of marriage. She smiled softly, a dimple creasing her left cheek. “Dear…” she said lovingly.
Mary Ann and Tommy called each other “dear” so much that one friend wondered aloud if they knew each others’ names.
In one of my favorite moments on another visit, Mary Ann was telling a story that seemed to veer wildly off topic. “Dear,” Tommy said, “the train has left the track.”
Ann and I say this to one another still, stretching the dear into two long syllables as we try to echo his line.
On that recent trip, Tommy was preparing for the Sunday school class he would be teaching on an Old Testament story. Animatedly, he told us that this story foretold the story of Christ, and was in fact a reference to Christ’s coming.
“Well,” I said to him, “Some people think that.” Tommy and I had different ideas about politics and religion. If I understand it right, he was a Biblical literalist and a social conservative (though he and Mary Ann were always loving towards my partner Ann and me.)
“No. I’m pretty sure it’s fact. Pretty much every scholar agrees,” he countered.
“What about Jewish scholars?”
“Well,” he said, “You have a good point there.”
That’s how he was. Kind and humble. Love and family always came first with him. One day when I’m wise, maybe I’ll be as kind and humble and loving as he was.