Who Will Tell the Story?

DSC00528“My hometown of Richmond, Virginia is a city anchored to its past by bronze and marble Confederate shrines of memory, by an undying devotion to the cult of the Lost Cause. I was born and raised in the furrowed, relic-strewn Civil War battle fields on the city’s tattered eastern edge. A captive of its public schools, I was taught official Virginia history from textbooks approved by the First Families of Virginia. But I came to understand the shadowed history of my state by caring for its outcasts.

These lessons began while I was in nursing school. The modern hospital of the Medical College of Virginia curled around the former White House of the Confederacy like a lover. My clinical rotations were nearby in the crumbling brick former colored-only hospital, which then housed indigent and homeless patients, as well as prisoners. Most of these patients were black, so I called it the almost-colored-only hospital. The prisoners, shackled to their beds and accompanied by brown-clad guards, were from the State Penitentiary, located across town. One of my patients was a death-row inmate. When I spoon-fed him his medications, I was simultaneously afraid for my own safety and ashamed of being an accomplice to murder. I knew I was nursing him back to health only to return him to be killed by the state. I wanted to talk to him, ask about his family, about his life in and outside of prison, but the stone-faced armed guard loomed over me. I knew from experience not to discuss my ambivalent feelings with my  nursing instructor. She considered these to be inappropriate topics. I wanted to finish nursing school as fast as I could, so I kept silent.” (pp. 57-58, from my forthcoming medical memoir Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net, Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 9, 2016.)

I was reminded of this passage from my book this past week as I read the NYT article “Who Will Tell the Story of Slavery?” (Lorne Manly, June 29, 2016). Manly describes the (sadly to me, oh so familiar) political dueling going on in my hometown of Richmond over the location of the National Slavery Museum. Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder (our nation’s first elected African-American governor, who was more recently also the Mayor of Richmond (2005-9), wants to establish the museum in the former First African Church (now owned by the Medical College of Virginia/Virginia Commonwealth University and located next to the main hospital I describe above). But the current powers-that-be, including the current Mayor Dwight C. Jones, want to locate such a museum at the historic site of the notorious Lumpkin’s Jail, a former slave prison, dubbed ‘The Devil’s Half-acre,’ the site of which was recently located and excavated. (see the Smithsonian Magazine article “Digging Up the Past at a Richmond Jail,” by Abigail Tucker, March 2009.)

The Richmond indie bookstore, Fountain Bookstore, where I’ll be doing a Catching Homelessness author event (Tuesday October 11, 2016 at 6:30 p.m.), is located a few blocks from the site of the former slave prison in the Shockoe Bottom area of Richmond. Perhaps I’ll include a reading of this section of my book. And not keep silent anymore…

The Pebble in My Shoe

IMG_1805“I write about what most fascinates me right now,” said John McPhee, by way of Robert Michael Pyle, both amazing trail-blazers, or perhaps trackers, of that strange beast that is creative nonfiction. McPhee has written books on subjects such as oranges, the island of his Scottish ancestors, family doctors, college basketball players, the shad as Founding Father fish, and the history of the birch-bark canoe (my personal favorite). Pyle, who is also a biologist, a lepidopterist (butterfly expert), and founder of the Xerces Society for invertebrate ecology (saving our butterflies and bees), has written about butterflies and trees and Big Foot and life. My favorite contemporary female trackers of, or perhaps more fittingly, expanders of the boundaries of creative nonfiction are Terry Tempest Williams and Rebecca Solnit. When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012) by Williams and A Book of Migrations (London: Verso, 211) by Solnit remain two of my all-time favorite books.

Each of these great writers of creative nonfiction sweep us along on explorations of their own current fascinations, obsessions, questions–the pebbles in their shoes, as one of my writing mentors, Stephanie Kallos puts it so aptly. What is it that you carry with you, that at each step insistently reminds you of its existence? The pebble of obsession doesn’t have to be a large rock-sized, inscribed with the muse-whisperer one as shown in the photo here (my historian son made that for me a few years ago–coolest present ever!). But is should be of sufficient significance to be likely to matter to other people besides yourself.

My pebble, my obsession, is and has been for many decades now, the wicked problem of homelessness. I call it a wicked problem, not so much because it is evil or immoral (which I happen to think it is), but because it is so vastly complex a problem that it defies easy solution. Hence, all the well-meaning but expensive and time-consuming ’10 Year Plans to End Homelessness’ implemented (much more than 10 years ago now) in so many U.S. cities, and that largely failed. The term ‘wicked problem’ was coined by two UC Berkeley professors of urban planning, Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, to describe difficult social policy issues such as poverty, crime, and homelessness. (Read their still surprisingly relevant journal article “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” Policy Sciences (4), 1973, pp. 155-169.)

Rittel and Webber write, “As distinguished from problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable, the problems of governmental planning–and especially those of social or policy planning–are ill-defined; and they rely upon elusive political judgment for resolution. (Not ‘solution.’ Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved–over and over again.)” (p. 160)

But who would we be, as individuals, as a society, if we didn’t even try? That is the core question, the obsession, the pebble in my shoe.

Postcards of Homelessness Across America

AFAA292C-DF0D-4ECB-A259-C1F1A5C447F0During a recent cross-country car trip with my family from Seattle to Washington, DC, I recorded impressions of the state of homelessness from a traveler’s perspective. We spent time in the following major (and not-so-major) cities: Seattle, Washington; Boise, Idaho; Salt Lake City, Utah; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Austin, Texas; Houston, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Atlanta, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; and Washington, DC.

The face and interface of visible street-based homelessness change radically from place to place. The demographics of rough-sleepers vary by location, with Seattle, Salt Lake City, and New Orleans having the largest proportion of teenage and young adult ‘visibly homeless’ people. Atlanta, Georgia, Richmond, Virginia and Washington, DC had the oldest and the highest proportion of African-American people who are visibly homeless, on the streets.

Boise, Idaho had very obvious ‘anti-homeless’ city ordinances and police enforcements on the downtown streets. Salt Lake City had the most visible apparent efforts to reach out and help homeless people–with downtown restaurant people giving free meals to some people pushing their belongings around in shopping carts–sidewalk rest/restroom/community pop-up areas that seemed tolerant if not friendly to everyone. I realize it is the headquarters of the Mormon church (and state) and that there is most likely a darker, more complicated flip-side, but I also would be unfair not to report some of the positive attributes that I experienced while there.

I took photographs and wrote notes (and Instagram ‘reports’) throughout my cross-country trip, focusing on health and homelessness. I left postcards of my forthcoming book, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 2016), on various community boards in coffee and bookshops (and gas stations) along the way. Here is a (more or less) chronological slideshow of my ‘postcards of homelessness’ impressions across America:

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Going Home

IMG_7388I was born and raised and became homeless and then ‘back-out-of homeless’ in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Richmond, as the Capital of the Confederacy,  is a complex city with a complex history. I left Richmond in 1990, ostensibly to move to Baltimore to go to graduate school, but mainly to try and leave the ghosts of my past behind. But there’s that irritatingly true maxim of “wherever you go, there you (and your ghosts) are.” That’s why I researched and wrote my forthcoming medical memoir Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 9, 2016). It was an attempt to make some sense of my past, of my relationships–including my relationship to the South that formed me.

For my book, in a chapter tilted “Greyhound Therapy,” I end with this paragraph:

“Here’s the thing: some geographical cures do work. Sometimes it takes radical change to get your life back. I wanted to move as far away from my birthplace of Richmond as I could get. It was a place I found disorienting. Once I graduated, I took a full-time academic nursing job in Seattle and I got my son back full-time. I also met a wonderful man, Peter, and his young daughter, Margaret, who have both become my family, my home. I can now revisit Richmond—for a short time—and not get lost.”

But then, in a recent essay version of “Greyhound Therapy” published in the Front Porch Journal, (Issue 32, May 2016) I added the sentence, “The real truth is I no longer return.”

Be careful what you write. Less than a month after I wrote that sentence I was back in Richmond, eating at my favorite restaurant there (Comfort), as a pitstop on my family’s cross-country road trip to Washington, DC. And today I found out that I will return to Richmond again this fall, for a Catching Homelessness book reading/signing at my favorite Richmond indie bookstore, Fountain Bookstore, located downtown in Shockoe Slip, an area with a sullied history of slave and tobacco trade. So for all of my friends and relations,  and former co-workers at the Daily Planet and Fan Free and CrossOver Clinics, and students/faculty/staff/alums of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing, and fellow members of the James River Writers Association, come on down to the Fountain Bookstore on Tuesday October 11, 2016 at 6:30pm and we can share stories of the meaning of home–and of homelessness. And of writing your way back home.

Safe Sleep Matters

IMG_8022Good sleep supports good health, including mental health. We’ve all experienced sleep disruption and sleep deprivation at some point in our lives. Pulling ‘all-nighters’ while cramming for exams in school. Being a new parent. Being a caregiver for someone ill or injured. Being a night-shift nurse or other worker. Times of insomnia. We know from experience that not getting enough sleep can make us cranky at best and dangerous to ourselves and others at worst (as with driving-while-fatigued). So why, as a society, do we insist on making it a crime for homeless people to sleep, or even to simply rest?

This morning, while walking my dog in my Seattle neighborhood, I passed a small public park where a man dressed in ragged clothes lay sleeping in the shade of one of our lovely Pacific Northwest conifers. It is a hot day, and it gladdened my heart that when I passed him again several hours later on my way home, someone had placed bottled water near him–and he was stirring, reaching for the water. And no police officer was shooing him away. An increasing number of cities are criminalizing homelessness, including passing tough anti-loitering laws for public parks and sidewalks.

For anyone who has ever been homeless, or who takes the time to talk with and understand more of the lives of people experiencing homelessness, finding a safe place to sleep is one of the biggest difficulties. People who are homeless and are rough-sleeping are at great risk of being victims of crime, including of targeted hate crime (although homelessness is not a ‘protected’ category under federal hate crime laws). Whatever meager belongings they have are at risk of being stolen. Women are especially vulnerable to sexual assaults while they are sleeping or resting.

That is why I was heartened on my recent stay in Portland, Oregon to be able to visit the consumer-run nonprofit group Right to Dream Too. This is how they describe what they do and why they do it :”Right2DreamToo (R2DToo) was established on World Homeless Action Day, Oct. 10th, 2011. We are a nonprofit organization operating a space that provides refuge and a safe space to rest or sleep undisturbed for Portland’s unhoused community who cannot access affordable housing or shelter. We exist to awaken social and political groups to the importance of safe undisturbed sleep.”

The city corner lot where Right to Dream Too is located is a noisy one, what with being on a busy street (Burnside) and with wrecking balls whacking down buildings all around them. Yet it is an amazingly welcoming and peaceful oasis inside. A check-in desk, people doing shifts of self-policing the area for security, a small eating area next to a couch and bookshelves filled with books. Covered, airy gym-type thick mats raised on pallets where people can sleep. Neatly stacked piles of sleeping bags and pillows. (They told me that most of their budget goes towards laundry for the bedding). Tents in the back for staff members who stay there longer term. Well-maintained port-a-potties. Flower boxes. Brightly painted cast-off doors around the perimeter. Donated bicycles and clothing. A special tent filled with computers and information on job-hunting and health, social, education, and legal services. A palpable sense of peace and community. And even a small community garden!

The five-year-old program is, of course, at continual odds with the various powers that be in Portland and are soon to be moved to another site out of the downtown core–less convenient for the ‘houseless’ consumers of their services, more convenient to the downtown developers, condo and business owners. Here are some photographs I took of my visit (with their permission).

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Summer Reading Challenge 2016

IMG_7812Reading through the recent NYT article “12 New Books We’re Reading this Summer (and 6 Not So New),” with the list of summer reading by their book critics and staff, I was reminded that it is time to come up with my own summer reading challenge book list with a health humanities and social justice slant. Also, I was reminded to come up with a more diverse reading list than the one offered by the NYT. I did  similar list last summer (see previous blog post, Summer Reading Challenge with a Health Humanities/Social Justice slant ( June 2, 2015), with subsequent posts on my reading progress and reviews of the books.

My Summer 2016 Reading Challenge list of fifteen books is mainly composed of books I’ve acquired over the past few months during my cross-country travels, as well as from both the Association of Writers and Writers Programs (AWP) Conference in Los Angeles and the Health Humanities Consortium meeting in Cleveland. Four of the books on my list are truly ‘new’ books and the rest are new-to-me books. Here they are, listed from the bottom up as shown in the photo above:

Happy and thoughtful and humanistic summer reading everyone!

The Roots of Social Justice: It Starts Here

IMG_0335Poet, dramatist, psychotherapist, and anti-oppression trainer Leticia Nieto, who teaches at Saint Martin’s University near Olympia, Washington, uses a photograph of a tree to represent core power, grounding, and personhood, as she puts it “who we really are when all the layers of rigid roles are stripped away.” The photograph she uses is of a leafless tree with gnarled limbs and trunk in the distinct shape of a human body.

I had the good fortune of attending her workshop titled “Social Justice Through Interpersonal Liberation: Strategic Interventions for Anti-Oppression” at Seattle University’s wonderful Search for Meaning Book Festival at the end of February. I’ve subsequently bought and read her book (with co-authors Margot F. Boyer, Liz Goodwin, Garth R. Johnson, and Laurel Collier Smith), Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment: A Developmental Strategy to Liberate Everyone (Olympia, WA: Cuetzpalin Publishing). Although it has a fairly heady and pie-in-the-sky subtitle, it is an excellent book. I’ve worked my way through the book, revisited my notes from her workshop, and thought about what it all means for me. I’ve also spent time searching for my own photograph of a tree that represents my own life, grounding, personhood. I considered using a photo I took in New Zealand of the grand Tane Mahuta, an old growth giant kauri tree on the North Island that is upwards of 2,500 years old. That was when I was feeling a bit grandiose. As much as I love that tree and New Zealand, those are not my roots.

My roots, my ‘personhood’ tree is this old Black Oak tree still growing in the leafy green woods of Camp Hanover, my childhood home. This particular oak tree is growing beside on old family graveyard–a family I am not related to as far as I know. The roots of this tree are in complex territory, territory I am still wrestling with in terms of my own social justice and anti-oppression work. Here are a few excerpts from the chapter “First Families” in my forthcoming medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 2016)–excerpts that describe some of this territory:

“The land I grew up on near Cold Harbor [Virginia] had been the site of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War. The two battles were two years apart; soldiers on both sides in the last battle unearthed decomposing bodies from the previous battle as they dug trenches. Our land was strewn with Civil War bullets, musket balls, deep earthworks, and mounded graves. Long before, the Pamunkey Indians had scattered the land with white quartz arrowheads.(…) [There was] as family burial site. leaf-strewn mounds of earth bumped together in a line like the cedar logs on the corduroy road. The site was on a bluff overlooking a ravine cascading down to a small stream. Most of the graves had carved gray headstones: Robert Anderson born March 10, 1792, died July 26, 1853: William Nelson Anderson born February 16, 1837, died May 15, 1851; and, Nancy Peasley Anderson born April 18, 1833, died July 15, 1834. Nancy’s grave was short, but there was an even shorter grave next to it of another Nancy, “infant granddaughter” Nancy Julia Elizabeth with no dates given. A few feet away were six or so unmarked graves, which my mother said were those of Negro slaves. These couldn’t have been content, but I didn’t see their ghosts back then. It was as if they had never existed.”