What does a swamp possibly have to do with health, homelessness, and community health nursing?
Quite a lot as it turns out. I have spent the past year exploring possible answers to this question, as well as many other “swamp questions” and “swamp lessons.” It has been—and continues to be— a weekly deep-dive radical self-care sort of exercise. At the end of each week, I walk to the closest swamp or swamp-like spot of nature, wherever I am in the world, and I sit, observe, and write reflective entries into my swamp journal.
While I have traveled outside of Seattle fairly frequently and lived part of the past year in the UK, when I am at home I always walk to Yesler Swamp on Union Bay in Lake Washington. The photographs included in this post are from my Yesler Swamp walks over the past few weeks.
My weekly practice of swamp walks has been an important source of grounding for me (yes, pun intended since swamps are, at best, ‘quaking ground’) as I have navigated the interesting murky waters of being a leader of the community-campus Doorway Project. The politics involved with this community health project have been considerable. Subtext. Subterfuge. Unnecessary dramas. Wanting to shout “Bullshit!” in so many meetings I have lost count. Take it all back to the swamp and sit with it and see my way through.
Also, my weekly swamp walks and reflections have helped me wade through the new-to-me experience of dealing with the emotional weightiness of developing empathy with ‘historical figures’ such as “insane paupers,” homeless people I have come to know (at least at some level) through my research and writing of my current book project, Skid Road. Who knew (not me) that homeless people long dead could be just as real and deserving of compassion and empathy as those still living?
An academic life has many bizarre and Kafkaesque moments. As an ‘outsider academic’ I try to find humor within these moments as that helps me not take either the academic bubble—or myself—too seriously. This time of year we are asked to provide “updated CVs with accomplishments for the past academic year highlighted in yellow.” CVs, those courses or chronicles of our (academic) lives, are supposed to grow by the (academic) year and can become upwards of 50 or more pages by the time one becomes a full professor. I read advice from some supposedly successful academic that she did not accept any request to do anything unless it would add to her CV. Absurd, yes. An exercise in hubris, yes. Exhausting and in the end—meaningless. Yes.
My alternative CV for this past academic year: I survived. I loved my Fulbright fellowship time in Edinburgh. I read many nonacademic books. My favorite book that I read this past academic year was To the River by Olivia Laing. It has to do with the River Ouse. It has nothing to do with nursing.
The giant binder of promotion materials that went into my relatively recent promotion to full professor was returned to me. It served as a doorstop in my office for awhile. Then, after stubbing my toes on it one time too many, I tore up all the paper into tiny strips and turned the mushy mess into this paper mache mask. It is one of my proudest achievements.
After sleeping on this post, I woke up to re-read one of my favorite books from my adulthood: Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s Writing a Woman’s Life. This is a book I read when it first came out in paperback in 1988 while still living in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. It is a book I managed to carry with me even when I spiraled into homelessness—and it is a book that remains on my bookshelf. This passage from the end of Heilbrun’s book has a much different meaning for me now and relates to the content of this post:
“I once titled an Amanda Cross detective novel Death in a Tenured Position, and it occurs to me now that as we age many of us who are privileged— not only academics in tenured positions, of course, but more broadly those with some assured place and pattern in their lives, with some financial security—are in danger of choosing to stay right where we are, to undertake each day’s routine, and to listen to our arteries hardening. I do not believe that death should be allowed to find us seated comfortably in our tenured positions. Virginia Woolf described this condition in Mrs. Dalloway: ‘Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame. Where there is nothing’ (55). Instead, we should make use of our security, our seniority, to take risks, to make noise, to be courageous, to be unpopular.” (p. 131)
In researching the history of homelessness in Seattle as it has affected girls and women, I ran across this cringe-worthy magazine article/opinion piece. As it is unlikely to make its way into the book chapter I am writing—and since it provides some perspective on why we still have a women’s movement, I will share it here. The drawing (above) by Helen Turner (my paternal grandmother) is from the last page of her Georgia Normal Industrial College yearbook of her senior year. She wanted to be a teacher and an artist but instead, she married and raised three sons mostly on her own.
“Motherhood is the acme of motherhood. The girl alone can never be a mother, nor sit the queen of a happy home. The girl alone is a sinful, selfish, miserable, abhorred, ugly, wretched, hideous creature, whom to know is to shun and to meet is to pass by. She is an outcast and a social parasite.” (source: Honor L. Wilhelm in The Coast magazine, January 1901, p. 74)
I am grateful for the hard work of the many women on whose shoulders I stand. And I know that we all have much more work to do to make this world a safer, healthier place for all girls and women.
“Crusade to be begun against Shantytown. Health Board says its sanitary condition is such that it must be cleaned out.”
Sound familiar? Here in Seattle, perhaps substitute “unsanctioned tent encampments” or “tent cities” or even “tiny house villages” for “Shantytown” and it would be all too familiar.
Yet the “They Must Move” headline is from the front page of the Seattle Daily Times on August 16, 1899. The Shantytown in this article was located along a similar stretch of Seattle waterfront as the Depression Era Shantytown known as Hooverville depicted in the photo montage above. The photo is meant to depict an irate Seattle housewife living on Beacon Hill. She is pointing at the shacks below her and insisting they be cleaned up and burned down (which they eventually were). I have as yet been unable to find the specific source/photo credit for this photo but am told it is from the Seattle Times from the 1930s.
Finger-pointing and scapegoating are juvenile, divisive, and destructive. By anyone in any era. And when they are done by supposedly professional media people it is especially disheartening. Instead of opening up constructive and civic discourse on difficult, wicked problems like homelessness, these actions are counterproductive. I could finger-point here in this blog post, but I will refrain.
I love coffee shops. I love hanging out and listening to conversations in coffee shops. To me, such eavesdropping provides rich information about a place and its people.
Recently, I had the privilege of returning to London for work and had ample time to hang out and listen to what Londoners were sharing with their coffee and tea-mates. Brexit was, of course, a big topic of conversation with many people saying things such as, “I’m sick of hearing about it. The world is sick of hearing about it.” But there were more fascinating comments that have stayed with me.
A young man in a black turtleneck sweater was talking with his girlfriend in a small East London coffee shop. This was close to a series of major low-income and ironically named ‘housing estates.’ As his girlfriend sat down and he had greeted her, he said, “Deracinated. That’s a new word I learned today. It means uprooted, but whether or not that is forcibly uprooted I am not sure. Deracinated sounds violent though.” He asked his girlfriend what new word she had learned and she said, “neighborliness.” He replied (with a snort), “Neighborliness is so very middle-class. People where I live are nice but they don’t really help each other. Well, they do have a community garden so that’s something. You’re all basically living on top of each other so you may as well be friends.”
Later that same day, in an upscale coffee shop in Bloomsbury, a grey-haired British philosophy professor (he was quite proud of this fact so he worked it into his conversation several times) said to an older American couple, “In America, immigrants assimilate much better than they do here–or in any other country in the world for that matter. Here, they stay with their own kind and don’t mix in very well and then they cause all sorts of problems.” (This comment had to do with the Brexit anti-immigration undercurrent.) Then, he went on a tirade about the MeToo movement—”What were you in America thinking when letting those men-haters loose to wreck havoc on innocent men who lost their jobs just for looking at women the wrong way? Toxic masculinity and preferred pronouns and all of that is pure bunk!”
Coffee shops, public parks, public libraries are all examples of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg termed “third places”—not home and not work, but rather the public square or communal living room of a community. Such third places are important for civic engagement, democracy, developing a healthy sense of place and of belonging for a diversity of people. They foster conversations across differences and can help to support mental health and well-being. In my experience, the East London coffee shop was such a third place, while the snobbish—and toxically masculine—Bloomsbury cafe was decidedly not a third place.
“Is there still a will in this country to make things better?” Ben Danielson, MD, director of the Seattle Children’s Odessa Brown Clinic asked this question a few days ago in a nursing course I co-teach. His question resonates with me as I firmly believe that we all have the responsibility to leave things better than we found them. It is all too easy to complain bitterly about a situation we find distasteful but not work to improve things.
That is why I am grateful for our interprofessional Doorway Project team, youth serving agencies, and the young people in Seattle who are working to bring the dream of a community cafe to reality. The photo above shows the iterative design rendering of the cafe space, along with Seattle sunshine coming through the imagined (and real) skylights from our pop-up cafe event this past week. The sticky notes have additions from participants. Their suggestions include such as a rooftop community garden, music, a small shower—and stuffed animals to hug.
Our Doorway team is tasked with the lofty goal of ending youth homelessness in Seattle’s University District. We’re doing this by working with young people who are “experts by experience”—and with the wider community—to design a community cafe space where everyone is welcome. And where young people are valued for who they are and for what they bring to the table: music, artwork, poetry, storytelling, and more.
Dr. Danielson admonished our students in class this week to “not be shy about stealing good ideas,” pointing out that things we think of as innovative have usually been done before. For the Doorway Community Cafe we are building on the model of the Merge Cafe in Auckland, New Zealand, as well as the Open Door Cafe in Edinburgh, Scotland. The work of our students and young people from the community on the Doorway Project gives me hope for the future.