Poetry: The Art of Observation

IMG_4390Recently, I had the opportunity to take a Saturday environmental writing workshop at the University of Washington’s wonderful Burke Museum. I signed up for it when I found out that our Washington State Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna was teaching a session.  Two out of three of the sessions—including Luna’s—were centered around the practice of close observation. We were instructed to go outside the UW Observatory (coolest old building!), stand or sit in one place, observe and write down as many sensory details as possible for ten minutes. It was raining softly so I stood in the shelter of a doorway to conduct my observation. I was reminded of the truism that the art of paying attention comes through the practice of attention and close observation. These are essential skills for many aspects of life, and most definitely for the provision of good human-centered health care.

And yes, included in my observation and note-taking of details, was this sweet, tenacious dandelion stuck between a rock and a hard brick wall, yet managing to thrive and bloom. An apt metaphor for oh so many things. But dandelions were on my mind since I had just run across a historical document on Seattle pioneer Catherine Maynard. Catherine was second wife to our famous Doc Maynard and she was Seattle’s first official nurse. She is credited with introducing dandelions to the Seattle area. Dandelions were (and still are in certain circles) an important medicinal plant used to treat scurvy and other ailments.

After observing this dandelion, I wrote this poem. Happy Earth Day.

An Ode to Dandelions

labeled a weed

noxious, non-native species

scorned, uprooted, exterminated, poisoned

labeled a tonic

food, medicine

harvested leaves, flowers, roots

eaten raw, cooked

steeped in hot water for tea

fermented for wine

elixer of dandiness



What is a weed?

What is a tonic? A label?

Laughing yellow button

turned to whisp of fluff

blow away

fly away

spread your tonic weed seed!


Poetry Heals

IMG_4301 “come celebrate/with me that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and has failed.” Lucille Clifton, “won’t you celebrate with me” from Book of Light (Copper Canyon Press, 1993).

Poetry heals. Is it any surprise that at times of crisis, illness, grief—or joy and celebration—we turn to poetry to help express what straight word prose cannot?

I have been reminded of this over the past week while simultaneously holding the joy of a family milestone birthday with the sudden serious illness of a dear friend. I have been thrown into the arms of poetry.

Poetry heals. Our first responders are poets, as are artists of all kinds. Cherish our poets and artists. Their work is essential for our existence, for our survival. Listen up you curmudgeonly naysayers who proclaim that poet laureates of our cities, states, and nations are a waste of taxpayer dollars—that the money would be better spent on sweeping away our human waste, on filling the potholes in our roads. You too—but perhaps too late—will be thrown into the arms of poetry.

“There are times when people have experiences that don’t fit neatly into a storyline, a narrative of what happened. Especially within the context of trauma, suffering, and oppression, our ability to arrange bits together into a coherent narrative is overwhelmed. Yet these experiences, beyond the reach of narrative, can be formulated, conveyed, and communicated through metaphor, poetry, art, photography, and gesture.” (From my essay, “Witness: On Telling” in Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, Fall 2017.)

I end this, as I began, with the words of Lucille Clifton. Here is a powerful video recording of her talking about and then reading her poem, “The Killing of the Trees.” In her opening statement, she says, “There seems to be very little reverence for life. I think there is a thing which bothers me about people not having reverence for life that doesn’t look like themselves. And I think that is a great mistake.” As a gifted poet, Clifton can “see it all with that one good eye.”

Poetry Saves

“Pause there while the sea lights a candle” Josephine Ensign/2018

“…when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read in school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.” p.40

This is one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite authors, Jeanette Winterson, from her memoir (with one of the best titles ever) Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (New York: Grove Press, 2011). The book’s title comes from an admonishment her abusive, Fundamentalist Christian adoptive mother frequently gave her growing up. Jeanette was frequently locked in a coal cellar and then locked out of her house by her mother (for being “sinful and gay”) before she ran away from home permanently at age 16. In short, she had a tough life as a child. Poetry and literature saved her.

Towards the end of her memoir, Winterson writes eloquently of the complex relationship between madness and creativity. She admits that she often hears voices and realizes “…that drops me in the crazy category” but doesn’t much care. “If you believe, as I do, that the mind wants to heal itself, and that the psych seeks coherence not disintegration, then it isn’t hard to conclude that the mind will manifest whatever is necessary to work on the job.” Then she writes of the part of herself that acted out from her childhood trauma—the acting out in rage, self-harm (including suicidal ideation), social isolation, and “…sexual recklessness—not liberation.” She questions whether this madness could be the creative spirit. But she answers emphatically: “No. Creativity is on the side of health—it isn’t the thing that drives us mad; it is the capacity in us that tries to save us from madness.” pp. 170- 171.

April is National Poetry Month. Also, it is National Child Abuse Prevention Month as well as Sexual Assault Awareness Month—with this year’s theme (appropriately enough with the #MeToo movement) of Embrace Your Voice.


Hell Hath No Fury

IMG_6292Hell hath no fury like a host of women “getting woke” and speaking truth to misogynistic power—including that of our current U.S. President who, of course, is on record scorning and belittling women and treating them as sexual objects and then attempting to place gag orders on them.

Hell hath no fury like a host of women (and enlightened men) “getting woke” to the true meaning of being a feminist. Being a feminist goes beyond the wearing of pink pussy hats and marching (although I have done both of those things and they are an important start). Being a feminist goes beyond supporting the #MeToo movement and the brave women who are feeling empowered to speak up about sexual violence.

I am heartened by the increasing number of ethical and solid investigative news reports which bring to light and lead to due justice, not only the mind-bogglingly large cases such as the serial pedophile passing as sports physician Larry Nassar, but also the smaller yet life-altering stories of the many women (or women like them) who live next door—or who may be your daughter, sister, aunt, grandmother, or mother—or yourself. One recent, and local (to me) example of such a news story appeared in the Seattle Times this past week: “‘Shouting it from the rooftops’: Women confront abuse—even decades later” by Susan Kelleher (March 23, 2018). While this news report focuses on women’s stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, and therefore excludes such abuse in women’s homes and personal lives (where the vast majority of gender-based violence occurs), it is an illuminating and compassionate series of stories. As a woman and a nurse, I especially resonate with the story of retired nurse, Virginia Dawson. Dawson recounts the sexual harassment she endured early in her career at the pawing hands of a hospital physician. He even attempted to kidnap and sexually assault her in the morgue elevator. Female nurses continue to be targets of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace by patients, family members, and co-workers.

There are, and will continue to be, nasty backlash and negative repercussions for women who speak their truth. I applaud the many good people across our country who are donating their legal, mental health counseling, and other support services to the many thousands of women who do not have the resources of the high-profile likes of Stormy Daniels (Stephanie Clifford in real life).

Hell hath no fury like a host of women “getting woke,” speaking up, joining and supporting the #MeToo movement, learning the true meaning of being a feminist, registering and voting their consciences in the next elections—or who even run for political offices themselves. #MeToo becomes #PowerToThePolls.  Don’t just get angry. Do something constructive with the power of that anger: Vote. And help other people around you to vote for candidates who have the guts to stand up for safer gun regulations, reproductive rights for women, effective anti-violence programs, healthcare programs that work—and who have proven track records of deep respect for all living beings, including women.

Preventing Abuse: Children Came After Animals

IMG_E4291History is instructive. This past week, while reading Jacob Riis’ 1902 book The Children of the Poor, I came across his chapter titled “Little Mary Ellen’s Legacy.” Riis tells the story of Mary Ellen, a child of eight in 1874, who was daily beaten by her stepmother and locked in a closet in a tenement house in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City. A kindly Methodist missionary woman was told of Mary Ellen’s plight by a woman dying of tuberculosis who lived next door to the little girl and could hear her screams. The missionary, Etta Angell Wheeler, did home visits and social services and she promised the dying woman that she would do something to stop the child abuse.

But when Wheeler contacted various city benevolent societies and the police about the case, she was rebuffed and told that parents are the best guardians of their children and that it was dangerous to try and interfere. In desperation, Wheeler turned to Henry Burgh, who in 1866 had established our country’s first animal abuse association, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. As reported by Riis, Burgh responded to Wheeler’s plea for help by stating, “The child is an animal, if there is no justice for it as a human being, it shall at least have the rights of the stray cur in the street. It shall not be abused.” (p. 143) He called on his lawyers who intervened in the case. The judge at the trial had Mary Ellen removed from the home and she was subsequently adopted and raised by Wheeler’s sister. The step-mother received a year in jail. And as a result of the case of Mary Ellen, Henry Bergh along with co-founder Elbridge Thomas Gerry, in 1874 established the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the first such child abuse prevention society in the world.

I imagine that my social work colleagues are taught this history lesson—that animal abuse prevention and protection was established before any such prevention and protection for children—but I have never run across this fact in nursing education. Howard Markel, MD, professor of pediatrics, psychiatry, and the history of medicine at the University of Michigan wrote about this case in his NYT article, “Case Shined Light on Abuse of Children” (December 14, 2009). He concludes his article with the poignant reminder:

“Gone are the days when beasts of burden enjoyed more legal protection than children. In recent years, a broad spectrum of programs, diagnostic and reporting protocols, safe houses and legal protections have been developed to protect physically or sexually abused children.

But every day, at least three children die in the United States as a result of parental mistreatment. Many more remain out of sight and in harm’s way. Mary Ellen’s story reminds us of a simple equation: How much our society values its children can be measured by how well they are treated and protected.”

Homestead: The Past is Present

IMG_2602Westward, ho! To the land where the past is present.

The Homestead Act of 1862 may seem like ancient history, but it is not. For a quick American history review of relevance here: the Homestead Act became federal law under President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War when eleven (mostly Southern slave-holding states) had seceded from the Union. Of the vast area we now consider the American West, only Oregon and California had achieved statehood. The remaining land area was composed of various territories, including Washington Territory. The Homestead Act was part of Lincoln’s plan to claim the West for the Union and to keep the future states free of slavery.

The Washington State version of the Homestead Act was brought into play this month in my hometown of Seattle— in the case of a 58-year-old homeless man, Steven Long, and the city’s seizure of his GMC truck that was parked too long on a downtown Seattle street. As stated by Vianna Davila in a March 3, 2018 Seattle Times article “Judge rules Seattle homeless man’s truck is a home”: “King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer ruled that the city’s impoundment of Long’s truck violated the state’s homestead act—a frontier era law that protects properties from forced sale—because he was using it as a home.”

Here is the specific language of the Washington State Legislature’s Revised Code of Washington (Chapter 6.13.010) definition of homestead:

“(1) The homestead consists of real or personal property that the owner uses as a residence. In the case of a dwelling house or mobile home, the homestead consists of the dwelling house or the mobile home in which the owner resides or intends to reside, with appurtenant buildings, and the land on which the same are situated and by which the same are surrounded, or improved or unimproved land owned with the intention of placing a house or mobile home thereon and residing thereon. A mobile home may be exempted under this chapter whether or not it is permanently affixed to the underlying land and whether or not the mobile home is placed upon a lot owned by the mobile home owner. Property included in the homestead must be actually intended or used as the principal home for the owner.”

The city of Seattle is appealing Judge Shaffer’s ruling (source: “Seattle will appeal ruling that man living inside his truck should not have had to pay high fines after vehicle was towed” Vianna Davila Seattle Times, March 7, 2018). Although homeless tent encampments (both unsanctioned and sanctioned) are now a well-established part of the Seattle landscape, more people are homeless/displaced in their cars, trucks, and RVs. The latest estimate (January 2017 Count Us In Report) found that 2,300 people were homeless in their vehicles in King County. And having helped with the 2018 count, I can attest to the difficulty of deciphering whether or not people are sleeping inside a vehicle along our city streets. In an odd twist (or not), I discovered many men having slept in their cars and trucks overnight in the University District, waking up at 4:30am, donning their hardhats and high visibility vests and walking to their nearby construction jobs—construction of high-rise, high rent apartment and condo buildings that are displacing yet more low-income people into a life of homelessness. Isn’t that ironic?

The Things They Carry: Trauma and Homelessness

Detail from “Escape III” by M. Ensign Johnson 2012.

It is a well-established fact that trauma both precedes and accompanies homelessness. And especially for women (although, of course, not exclusively women), histories of childhood sexual abuse often contribute to homelessness and to mental health issues, including schizophrenia.*

Today’s NYT article serves as a case study of sorts for this connection. In his poignant in-depth article, “A ‘Bright Light,’ Dimmed in the Shadows of Homelessness,” Benjamin Weiser writes of the life—and death— of the Williams College graduate, Nakesha Williams.  Ms. Williams was, by all accounts, a brilliant, talented, articulate, well-read, and highly educated woman who was loved and supported by many relatives, friends, and even strangers who got to know her as she spiraled into homelessness and ultimately an untimely death on the streets of New York City. It is telling that the vast majority of the (as of this writing) 535 reader comments run along the lines of “the lump in my throat and the salt in my coffee from the tears streaming down my face,” as well as “if it (homelessness) could happen to her, it can happen to any of us.” There are, of course, the occasional comments such as “she refused help all along the way so what can we do?” and “she died with her individual choice and dignity intact” (I paraphrase here). But, hello dear reading public! Didn’t anyone pick up on the fact that a de-facto step-father of Nakesha was, in Weiser’s words, “an abusive man who repeatedly molested Nakesha when she was just a child” ?

Especially in this somewhat more “woke” era of the #MeToo era, I find it dismaying that as society—and as a supposedly socially progressive and educated readership of a national newspaper such as the NYT—people still do not make this connection. If we do not connect these important dots in the cause and effect scheme of things, how can we have any hope of improving the life trajectories of all the amazing people like Nakesha Williams?

“Childhood trauma, PTSD, and psychosis: Findings from a highly traumatized, minority sample” Abigail Powers, et al in Child Abuse and Neglect, August 2016, 58: 111-118.

“Trauma and the psychosis spectrum: A review and explanatory mechanisms” Lauren E. Gibson, et al in Clinical Psychology Review, November 2016, 49:92-105.

And from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council there are these excellent resources on trauma and homelessness. 

Also, I highly recommend the article, “Shelter from the Storm: Trauma-Informed Care in Homelessness Service Settings” by Elizabeth K. Hopper, Ellen L. Bassuk, and Jeffrey Olivet in The Open Health Services and Policy Journal, 2010, 3:80-100.