Looking Back

img_9790I learned to row in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, with a middle-aged ophthalmologist coxswain who refused to wear his glasses. Richmond is not a rower’s city; rowing is not a Southern sport. We were the only masters (older than collegiate) rowing club for at least 200 miles. There were twelve of us in the club, including a wiry plumber, a plump opera singer, a deeply wrinkled cigarette factory worker, a burly real estate agent, and a handful of bored doctors and lawyers.

Our boathouse was carved into the basement of a civil-war era warehouse on the banks of the James River below the falls, across from the city’s water-treatment center. The damp morning air we breathed while rowing smelled of sticky sycamore trees, stale tobacco, and pee. After heavy summer thunderstorms, the overflow raw sewage would fill the river with flotsam of used plastic syringes, crack cocaine bottles, condoms, and diapers.

We usually rowed a mixed eight with four men in the stern of the boat and four women in the bow. The plumber rowed “strokes” seat #8 since he had the best combination of rhythm and strength to set the pace for the boat. In seats # 5/6/7, the “engine room,” we had a couple of strong tall lawyers. The opera singer, the cigarette factory worker, and a doctor (all women) followed in seats #2/3/4. I was the smallest person in the boat, so I rowed bow. I was a nurse. Bowspersons have a strange sense of humor since they would be the first person to hit anything in the water.

We were dedicated rowers who trusted our coxswain to navigate us safely through the winding river, around barges and tugs. When you are sweep rowing and have a coxswain to guide the boat, you don’t look at where you are going, but rather at where you have been. You concentrate on the stroke and rhythm of the boat, look straight ahead, and count on the coxswain to see. Our middle-aged coxswain who refused to wear his glasses had a pleasant personality, but he had blind spots.

We didn’t know about our coxswain’s visual problem until he hit a green channel buoy—one of those iron eight-foot anchored ones—when we were rowing full force. “Weigh-nuff!” (rowing-speak for “Stop!”) he yelled. Somehow I didn’t get hit in the bow, but the woman in front of me did. The opera singer’s port oar hit the buoy—thwack!—and the force of it catapulted her out of the boat into the middle of the river. “Oh my God!” she screamed in an amazing octave as she flew through the air. She bobbed to the surface, sputtering but unhurt. Luckily, we were upstream from the water treatment plant.

We didn’t say anything to him after that row, but we wondered about our coxswain. A few weeks later he was again coxswaining the eight. While into a power-up stretch, we heard a rumble under the bottom of the boat. “Weigh-nuff! I think we hit something!” Sitting up in the boat holding our heavy wooden oars flat on the water, the boat took on water and then slowly began to sink below the surface. We had collided with a partially submerged sycamore tree. Our coxswain held his hospital pager overhead to keep it dry as a nearby fisherman in his motorboat rescued us. After we pulled the wrecked boat up on land and dried ourselves, we met as a team in the boathouse.

“Ahhhh—so what happened out there—didn’t you see that tree?” the plumber asked.

“It was dark. But I guess I need to start wearing my glasses. You know it’s no fun getting older,” he said, followed by a strained laugh. I was in my 20s at the time and thought this was pathetic.

I took up sculling a single after that so I could be responsible for my own navigation. I’ve rowed on some beautiful rivers including the Amstel in Amsterdam and the Chao Phraya in Bangkok. Rowing a single on the Amstel with my Dutch boyfriend rowing beside me was like being inside a Rembrandt painting, with billowing grey clouds and bursts of sun glancing off the water. In Bangkok, I didn’t row so much as paddled, being on the US Women’s Swan Boat team. Our team had practiced for a year in a makeshift boat on the majestic Potomac River in Washington, DC. The boat we practiced in was a flat, stable Dragon Boat. In contrast, Swan Boats are graceful 3-ton teakwood round-bottom boats. When our team entered our first Swan Boat on the Chao Phyraya River in Bangkok, we almost tipped over. It was the end of the rainy season. In amongst the water hyacinths, a bloated dead pig floated by belly up. We quickly regained our collective balance in the boat. In the race we came in second, beaten by a rugged team of Thai female farmers who were used to flooding and dead pigs. I was glad they won.

I moved to a West-coast city that is a rowing mecca. Rowing a single into middle age can get lonely, so I joined an older women’s rowing team. On a recent morning I rowed bow in a four, with three strong women who have survived working for Microsoft. We were rowing on Lake Washington with a fifty-five-year old coxswain who has a pierced nose, tattooed neck and shaved head. She makes frequent references to S&M and bondage while we are rowing: “Feel the burn! You know you want more!” This can be disconcerting until you get used to it. She has perfect eyesight and as far as I know she’s never hit anything in a boat.

The early morning sun was turning Mount Rainier pink, and salmon were jumping in the water. There were no used syringes, cigarettes, or dead farm animals in the water, but I caught a whiff of sycamore tree. The smell evoked a pang of longing for the James River, for the ragged team I learned to row with, and even for the blind coxswain. It occurred to me how much we miss seeing when we’re young. It is nice to have all those miles of water to gaze back upon.


Note:  I wrote this brief essay almost ten years ago, and I now row mostly on my home rowing machine. I do, however, still feel that pang of longing for the James River in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. I look forward to visiting it again in a few weeks when I return there for a reading of Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net, on Tuesday October 11th 6:30-8pm at the Fountain Bookstore. My former colleague and immediate past president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Sheila Crowley, will join me. It is also a benefit for The Daily Planet, Richmond’s Health Care for the Homeless and safety net Clinic. Going home.

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…

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.