Beyond Endurance

P1020950.jpgI believe her. I cannot imagine what sort of man-made hell (quite literally) she is now living through wherever she and her family are in hiding. I like to think of them as the trees pictured here are doing—embracing and supporting each other. From an ocean away, I can at least virtually support her.

I am, of course, referring to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and her forced-to-go-public allegations of sexual assault as a 15-year-old at the hands (and body) of Trump-supported Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. Trump, and many male Republican senators, have publicly called Dr. Ford a liar. Would we expect anything different, anything better from men who excuse their own misogynistic beliefs and behaviors as mere locker-room boorish boy banter?

I do understand the long-lasting negative effects of surviving sexual assault. I understand the power of love, support, (good, woman-centric) therapy, time—and of telling one’s own story if and when one is ready to do so and when one is ready—in healing, in survival, in resilience, in endurance. In, as is used well in Indigenous Studies, survivance: survival/endurance or perhaps survival/resistance.

I wish for Dr. Ford and other brave girls and women in the world survivance and goddess-speed.

Reflections on the Poor Laws

P1020893.JPGWater of Leith, Edinburgh, bench beside Saint Bernard’s well with a statue of Hygieia, goddess of health

The largely impenetrable layers of history and how we humans are so prone to repeat past mistakes.

That is what occurs to me today as I walk these ancient paths and sit beside an ancient, pagan well of healing—mineral waters—overlaid, of course, by Christian (Saint Bernard) and ancient Greek (Hygieia) symbols. After a morning of reading ancient British Poor Laws—weeks of researching them and tracing their repercussions today, not only in the U.K. but also in the U.S. and in Seattle/Washington State. The worthy and unworthy poor. The deserving and underserving poor. The impotent poor. Paupers. Vagrants. Ruffians. Charity and its attendant ills. Solidarity and its limitations.

Beige mud puddles surround me here as I sit on this bench, barely staying dry underneath my umbrella. What sort of stone is all this beige-ness? (note: ancient sandstone, over 300 million years old.) The entire city of Edinburgh is composed of beige stone. And what minerals are in this water? (note: Sulphur, magnesium, and iron it seems.)

A soft purple Scottish thistle—late blooming ones in the midst of a large patch of blackened, dried up plants with thistle heads. There seems to be a prickly and a not so prickly version of thistles here. Why is the thistle the national flower of Scotland? (note: no one seems to know although there is a story about it that involves Norwegian invaders by sea who stepped on the thistles and alerted the Scots to their presence.)

Why aren’t nurses taught more about the history of social welfare and of the legacies of ancient pauper laws? Are they taught that at all here in Scotland or elsewhere in the U.K.? How much of it are even social workers taught either here in the U.K. or back home in the U.S.? It seems so important and puts many things in perspective, especially in terms of addressing the current thorny question, “What to do about the homeless?” And my own ongoing work in the vicinity of that question. I almost feel cheated in not having known about it much earlier in my life and my career as a nurse.

The deep layers of the histories of places and peoples are important to acknowledge, to know, at least at some more than superficial level. Is this something that can only be appreciated as one ages and takes on a proper sense of time?

A beechnut exploded, scattered on the ground along the river walk path wending its way beneath an old tree. They look like flowers but are hard. I try to press one between these pages and it breaks through the paper. Only the seeds remain.

 

Empathy: Walk in My Shoes

IMG_4999Shoes are powerful markers of a person; shoes tend to hold the presence of the person who has worn them. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion addresses this phenomenon. After the death of her husband from a massive heart attack, she finds herself holding on to his shoes. She writes, “I could not give away the rest of his shoes. I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need his shoes if he was to return. The recognition of the thought by no means eradicated the thought.”*

(…) It was the red sneakers Essie was wearing that drew me to her at the women’s shelter earlier that day. This was the second time in the past several months I had run into Essie at one of our foot care clinics. She wore an orange polyester shirt with a green chiffon scarf tied around her dreadlocks, a pink pleated skirt down to her ankles, and the red sneakers. She told me she only dressed in bright, Caribbean colors: “They keep me happy. I can’t be all down in the dumps when I got these colors on.” Essie had a perpetual and slightly crooked smile, the crookedness perhaps the residue of a stroke.

The women’s shelter is located in a church basement in downtown Seattle near the main shopping district. It is a day shelter, a safe zone for women and children, that serves homeless and marginalized “near homeless” women, especially women dealing with domestic violence. The shelter has multiple case managers, social workers, and volunteer nurses who try to connect women with health, housing, and social services. The shelter workers lend the women a hand, bend an ear to hear their problems, offer a leg up the socioeconomic ladder, a toehold on life. Empathy is their main tool. Empathy is what we try to cultivate in our health science students.

Empathy is “feeling with” as opposed to “feeling for,” which happens at arm’s length sympathy. “Walking in another person’s shoes” is how empathy is most commonly described. But can we ever walk in another person’s shoes? And is it always a good thing to try?

* quote is from Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (New York: Vintage International, 2006), p. 37.

Note: The above excerpts are from my essay, “Walk in My Shoes” in my book Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins (San Fransisco: University of California Medical Humanities Press), pages 11-12.

Stolen Stories

P1020721Telling the story of trauma—of survival—may have the capacity to at least aid in healing at the individual level, but then there is the added danger, once the story is shared, of it being appropriated and misused by more powerful political or fundraising causes. Stories can be stolen. Arthur Frank calls these “hijacked narratives—”Telling one’s own story is good, but it is never inherently good, and the story is never entirely one’s own.” (1)

An intriguing example of a stolen story is the one explored in Rebecca Skloot’s narrative nonfiction book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book that tells the story of the cervical cancer cells “stolen” from an impoverished and poorly educated black woman in Baltimore in the 1950s. Scientists at Johns Hopkins Hospital subsequently profited from culturing and selling these HeLa cells—cells which killed Henrietta Lacks, cells which neither she nor her family members consented to anyone using or profiting from. Skloot, a highly educated white woman, has also now profited from the use of the Lacks’ family story, although she has set up a scholarship fund for the Lacks family members.

I am reminded of the proverb that Vanessa Northington Gamble shares in her moving essay, “Subcutaneous Scars,” written about her experience of racism as a black physician. Dr. Gamble’s grandmother, a poor black woman in Philadelphia, used to admonish her, “The three most important things you own in this world are your name, your word, and your story. Be careful who you tell your story to.” (2)

**The above is an excerpt from my chapter/essay “The Body Remembers” from my book Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins (San Francisco: The University of California Medical Humanities Press, 2018) page 81.

  1. Arthur W. Frank “Tricksters and Truth Tellers: Narrating Illness in the Age of Authenticity and Appropriation,” Literature and Medicine 28 no. 2 (Fall 2009): 185-99, page 196.
  2. Vanessa Northington Gamble, “Subcutaneous Scars,” Health Affairs 19, no.1 (February 2000): 164-69, page 169.

Students Rock

IMG_4490This is why I continue to love my academic work: smart, creative, compassionate students who see what is needed in our world and find ways to ‘just do it.’ They ask the hard questions, like “well, why not?” and they help keep us honest about what we are supposed to be focused on within higher education—and especially at public institutions in our country. As the University of Washington Vision and Values statement puts it, we educate a diverse student body “to become responsible global citizens and future leaders,” and “we discover timely solutions to the world’s most complex problems and enrich the lives of people throughout our community, the state of Washington, the nation and the world.”

This past academic year I’ve had the pleasure (most days) of directing the Doorway Project, with the aim of creating an innovative community cafe/navigation hub for young people (including, unfortunately, many of our own students) who are homeless and/or experiencing food insecurity in the University District of Seattle. It has not been without its many challenges, but also satisfactions and delightful surprises. It is swamp work, as in real work on real-world problems. (see my previous blog post “Life in the Swamp: Float, Don’t Flail” from April 28, 2018 for an explanation of the swamp work reference.)

What gives me hope in terms of the real-world wicked problems like homelessness? I was asked a version of that question recently in a Seattle Growth Podcast with UW professor of business Jeff Schulman. “Our students and young people,” was part of my response.

Here is a hot-off-the-press news article “Student volunteers help expand UW’s outreach to homeless youth” by Kim Eckart (UW News, August 20, 2018). Enjoy a ray of (smoky here) sunshine and hope for the future. And here is the latest new and improved design for the Doorway Cafe (design credits: Hope Freije and Delphine Zhu).

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Trauma Mastery

IMG_0253Note: This is an excerpt from my essay “The Body Remembers” in my book Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins (San Francisco: University of California Medical Humanities Press, 2018).

Early in my career as a nurse, I worked for a year in a “safe house” emergency shelter for women who were escaping intimate partner violence. Before my work there, I did not understand the concept of trauma mastery and how this plays out in the lives of women caught up in the cycle of abuse. I sided with the common misperception that the reason so many women return to their abusive partners is because the women are psychologically damaged and weak.

I learned that there is the not-insignificant role of addiction to the thrill of trauma and danger—to the effects of the very activating yet numbing fight-or-flight neurochemicals—which can bring at least temporary relief to the bouts of fatiguing depression that often accompany trauma. And there are also unconscious attempts to return to the previous trauma to “get it right this time”—to do what we wish we could have done the first time, to master our trauma.

Seattle social worker Laura van Dernoot Lipsky points out that these unconscious attempts to master our traumas often backfire and simply reinforce our old traumas. She says that many of us in health care and other helping professions are often using our work as a form of trauma mastery, and that by doing so, we may set expectations for ourselves and others that are “untenable and destructive.” (1) She advocates ongoing efforts aimed at self-discovery and self-empathy, and points to the many positive examples of “people who have been effective in repairing the world while still in the process of repairing their own hearts.” (2) Eve Ensler, with the combination of personal work and “world repair” work that she describes in her powerful book In the Body of the World, is one of my favorite examples of this sort of balanced approach. (3)

 

Sources:

1 and 2, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk, Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009), page 159.

3, Eve Ensler, In the Body of the World (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013).

 

Why Write?

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From the 2017 Northwest Network for Narrative Medicine Conference, Portland, Oregon

Recently, in a writing workshop on social justice issues, I was given a copy of Terry Tempest Williams’ essay “Why I Write” and in response to the reading of that brief essay, was given the writing prompt, Why do you write?

A simple enough (and in some ways too simple, as in a middle school level) writing assignment, but one that I happily took on. Beside my desk at home hangs an excerpt of George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Why I Write.” In this essay he includes a list of “four great motives for writing” and they include (here in abbreviated form):

  1. “Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grownups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.. It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one.
  2. Esthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. (…) Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.
  3. Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
  4. Political purpose—using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive for.” pp. 312-313 in, A Collection of Essays by George Orwell, London: Harcourt, Inc. 1946.

So here is my prose poem, “Why I Write”:

  1. I write because my fingers are ink-stained. I write because if I don’t, my pen will explode.
  2. I write to make sense of the world. I write to court chaos.
  3. I write until the rivers of my mind run clear. I write until glyphs are superfluous babble-brook praise.
  4. I write unless there are enough reasons not to. I write unless it is unsharable, and then it stays inside, inscribed, worm-tracing scars.
  5. I write journals, research proposals, reports, patient chart notes. I write poems, blog posts, essays, chapters, books, and marginalia.
  6. I write personal mission statements. I write to humanize health care for patients, providers, and communities.
  7. I write my name. I write my different names beneath the kitchen cabinet of my childhood.
  8. I write because I was here. I write because I am here.
  9. I write to remember. I write to forget.
  10. I write. I am a writer.

I opened this post with a reference to the social and environmental justice writing of Terry Tempest Williams. I close with one of my favorite passages of her writing that I stumbled upon this summer. It is from her book An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field (Vintage, 1995). It reminds me of why I write; it reminds me of the importance of women writers in our world:

“As women connected to the earth, we are nurturing and we are fierce, we are wicked and we are sublime. The full range is ours. We hold the moon in our bellies and fire in our hearts. We bleed. We give milk. We are mothers of first words. These words grow. They are our children. They are our stories and our poems.” p. 59