Sunday, October 30, 2011

Giving Gifts

In a moment of hope
I read you my poem.

I knew you wouldn’t understand
but read it anyway,
like a child wanting
a pat on the head
a smile
a thumbs up
a high-five:
I’m not particular about the ways praise
can find me.

You looked baffled, asked
what I plan to do with a
box full of writing.
Asked if any of it was
worth saving.

Long ago you taught me the rule:
when someone gives you a gift,
you smile
and say thank you.

It was so long ago
I'm sure you have just

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"Pennhurst Asylum", or, whatever happened to compassion and respect?

 So the other day I got an email alerting me to this: . Needless to say, I got pretty angry. Okay, really angry. So I wrote this letter, which I will be sending to various people. If you have any suggestions, or if something is unclear, let me know. I encourage you to write a letter as well. What the heck is wrong with the world?
October 25, 2011

To whom it may concern:
Halloween is, certainly, a fun time of tricks and terrors.  I understand that, currently, Halloween is a time where the scary, evil, supernatural, and odd are brought out and celebrated.  In the past several decades, Halloween has evolved into a time for scary movies, haunted houses, and haunted hayrides, all activities that can certainly remain harmless and pleasurable for those who enjoy being frightened. 
However, as an advocate for persons with disabilities, and as a predoctoral intern in psychology working with individuals with disabilities, I am outraged by the fact that the former Pennhurst State School will be used as a tourist attraction.  Per your website, you are aware of the history of the school, as well as the abuse and suffering that occurred there.  The historical treatment of people with disabilities is certainly a dark spot in American history and, while much has improved, the lingering effects from these views remain in the varying ways we continue to stigmatize people with disabilities and people with mental illness.  The fact that the known suffering, abuse, and death of former residents of Pennhurst State School will be used as “entertainment” is unacceptable. 
Historically, persons with mental illness and people with disabilities have been perceived as “evil,” supernatural, and something to be feared.  Although these beliefs are not generally held overtly by individuals in today’s society, there continues to be significant shame, stigma, and fear surrounding disability.  “Pennhurst Asylum” as a tourist attraction perpetuates and capitalizes on this oppression and stigma.
Pennhurst State School, and many state schools and institutions similar to Pennhurst, closed in the relatively recent past.  According to your website, Pennhurst began the deinstitutionalization process in 1986; conceivably, there are individuals and their families in the community who survived the horror of living in the actual institution.  The trauma resulting from the inhuman treatment of the people living in the institution is one that affects not only the individuals, but also their families, their communities, and the country as a whole.  Having worked in several facilities for individuals with disabilities, I have personally met, worked with, played with, and laughed with several older adults who lived in various institutions and “state schools” for the majority of their lives.  The impact of these environments on some of society’s most vulnerable citizens is unforgivable.  As people with disabilities attempt to move forward from this time in history and establish their place in society, they continue to work to obtain such basic human rights as safety, freedom, independence, and accessibility.  The daily discrimination, segregation, and barriers faced can be daunting, and the disability movement is largely unnoticed by mainstream society.  By opening Pennhurst State School as a tourist attraction and sensationalizing the horrors of that point in history, “Pennhurst Asylum” is contributing to the marginalization, oppression, and segregation of a population within our society. 
Unless a society is unable to acknowledge its historical mistakes, history is bound to repeat itself in some way.  By sensationalizing the abuse and suffering of a group of people, “Pennhurst Asylum” is not only condoning the acts that have occurred in the past, but also allowing this and other forms of oppression to continue in the future.  Basic respect for the suffering, abuse, and trauma of people is the very least that can be done in a historical location such as Pennhurst State School.  From that respect, I can only hope that we as a society can move towards much needed, and long awaited, respect for the personhood and autonomy of persons with disabilities.
In Peace,

Please write a letter?  You can take ideas and even pieces of mine if you would like.  On the email list I got this through it suggested writing a letter to the Pennhurst people, but also writing a letter to your legislators (particularly if you live in PA), writing a letter to the editor (again, particularly if you live in PA), posting about it on your blog, posting on your Facebook...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A snippet of conversation...

 “Who's there?" Bubby says as soon as I open the door.  I walk into the family room and her face lights up.  "Hi Pussycat!  Thanks for coming.  It's so good of you to come.  You can't stay long, you're busy. Come sit down.  You'll just stay for a little bit.  I can’t offer you a thing.  I don’t know what’s in my Frigidaire and I can’t get up, I…”
“Hi Bubby,” I say, kissing her cheek before taking the seat she indicated.
“How are things?  I can’t offer you a thing…there’s water in the kitchen.  And a glass.  And maybe some nosh, I don’t know.  I can’t offer you a thing.”  She says “water” like my dad does, so it sounds like “wooder.”  I am momentarily embarrassed that I trained myself to say “water” instead, just like I taught myself to say “on” instead of “oin.”  Bubby’s house is synonymous with “nosh” in my mind, and I feel a pang that there is nothing to eat on the table, not because I’m hungry, but because it’s symbolic of the changes occurring.
“Things are good, Bubby,” I say, taking off my jacket.  “I don’t need anything, I just ate.”
“How’s school,” she says before I’ve finished.
“Work’s good,” I say.  She forgets I’m not still at school and can’t really understand the concept of an internship.
“You work hard,” she says, nodding, like she knows she’s right.  “You always work hard.  All my kids work hard.”
“How are you feeling?” I ask, trying to get a word in before she asks another question.
“I’m fine.  That school you go to, it has a good reputation.  I never hear anything bad about it.  You do good work.  You work hard.”  These are not questions, they are statements.  “And you love it.  You work hard but you love it.  You work hard but you love what you do, baruch hashem.  You work like a dirty dog.”
“Everything is good though, Bubby,” I say.
“You never complain.  You work hard and you never complain.  You cook for yourself?  You make yourself dinner?”
“Yes Bubby.  I…”
“I think that’s so good.  All you kids cook for yourselves.  I don’t cook anymore.  I put the thing from the Fridgidaire, from the – the freezer--in the…um…the…I put it in the…um…”
“The microwave?”
“Yes.  I put it in the microwave and…that’s it.  I don’t cook anymore.”  She nods, finalizing her last statement
“That’s okay, Bubby.  And you’ve got people helping you here now.  Don’t they cook for you?”
“Yes, they cook, the other day she…uh…what’s her name?  Not this one.  The other one.  The one that comes here sometimes.  At night.  She comes at night.  She made chicken.  It was alright.  She made it in the kitchen and gave it to me, and it was alright.  It was alright.”  She continues without taking a breath.  “Your father won’t let me drive anymore.  And the doctor, he doesn’t want me driving anymore.  But I told them I know I can’t drive right now, so we’re just going to wait and make a decision later.  We don’t have to decide now.  I’ve been a good sport, but I’m not going to give that up.  I don’t go far.  I go to the beauty shop.  I go to…you know…just right up here.”  She points.  “Down…” she points in the other direction, “you know…McDonough…no, not that one…Liberty…down near where Aunt Jean used to live…anyway, I go down to…you know that place to buy groceries.  I go down there.  And I go to Betty’s.  And I visit Aunt Faygie.  And that’s it.  That’s all I do.  I don’t go anywhere else.  But they say I can’t do that, and I tell them they can’t take that away from me yet, for the thing there.  But that’s what they said.”
“Well Bubby, I think everybody is really worried right now.  And you have all these people here helping you that can take you where you need to go.  You just tell them you need to go to the beauty shop or go shopping and they’ll be happy to…”
“We’re not talking about it.  I don’t go far.  I just go to the beauty shop and to visit Aunt Faygie and…”
“It doesn’t matter how far you’re going.  Things can happen, even just going down the road to the beauty shop.  Things can happen in a parking lot.  You know that from when you hit that pedestrian before…and everything was okay that time, but Bubby, you’ve got to listen to your doctor even if you don’t want to listen to Daddy.”
She laughs.  “He takes good care of me.  I know he just…he worries.  Does he worry?  He worries.”
“We all worry, Bubby.”
“I know, we all worry about everybody, honey.  We all worry.”
“We’d worry less if we knew you weren’t driving.”
“We’re not talking about that,” she says.  She folds her arms to let me know the conversation is really over.  There is silence for a moment as I listen to my heart pounding in my ears.  How do I contradict my 87-year-old grandmother?  She isn’t a scary woman, but in this blur of a conversation, my heart hurts as I try to figure out how to be her granddaughter and also protect her.  How to convey my respect of her authority and age and wisdom.  How do I give her the respect I need to give based on the very fact that she is my Bubby, and also let her know that she is wrong.  That I disagree with her.  That I am in a position where I need to protect her.  This is a woman I have never seen cry, even when my grandfather died.  A breast cancer survivor, a woman with 14 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren, my grandmother serves 42 relatives for Passover seders.  She makes salads so big she uses garbage bags to toss the lettuce with the dressing.  She yells at me when I carry dishes to the sink, telling me to sit down and stop doing so much.  You don’t disagree with her.  You don’t tell her what she can and can’t do.  She uses lines like “I’m your Bubby and you listen to me.”  And so you do.  You just do.
But none of that matters now, because we’re not talking about it.  That much is clear.  It’s a conversation we will need to wait to resurface and, maybe then, I will have better answers.  Maybe then I will know better how to say it…or maybe not.  Maybe it will still make my heart squeeze in a rhythm not my own. 
“The lady who helps me…you know the one?  She was here the other day.”
“Which one?” I ask.
“You know the one.  I can’t think of her name.”
“Was it Paula?”
“No.  The other one.”
“No.  The other one.  I don’t know why I can’t think of her name.”
“What about her, Bubby?”
“Why can’t I think of her name!  You know.  The other one.  This is so silly.  Why can’t I think of her name?”
“It’s okay.  Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t get old, kid,” she says.  “Getting old is for the birds.”
I laugh.  “I’ll try not to,” I say.
“Why can’t I think of her name?” she asks again.  “She has the same name as me.”

Finding Home

When I was a kid, I loved going on vacation.  I would wait for it, wait for it, wait for it…  I would look forward to it, ask about when it was coming, be SO EXCITED to go, and then, about a week before it was time to leave, I would balk.  I would start dreading it.  I didn’t want to go.  Vacation meant a change from the routine and, as much as I loved going places and seeing things, I liked the comfort, routine, and ritual of home.  Once we were on vacation, I was fine.  But I loved the feeling of coming home.  I could not wait to pull into our long gravel driveway, to run up to my bedroom, to find my cat and hug her and squeeze her until she was totally pissed off and looked like she wished I had been pulled away by the undertow of the ocean that left salt in my hair and sand in my shoes.
Some things, I’ve learned, change as you get older and others don’t. This pattern of both wanting and dreading change is something that remains constant.  I look forward to changes.  I love the excitement of going places, of changing things up, of seeing something new, of doing something different.  But afterwards, I love the feeling of coming home.  I love the settling into the routine, the calm comfort that brings.  I love the ritual of returning to what I know.  I think it is a good place to be, this loving both sides of this coin. 
If you count college, which I do, then in the past 9 years, I have moved 8 times.  Considering I just turned 26, that means I have moved almost every year since I was 17.  That, my friends, is a lot of moving.   
When I was a freshman in college, I remember talking to a friend who was getting ready to graduate.  “It doesn’t seem like you’re home here yet,” she said.  I was in the middle of what we’ll call “Bad Roommate Experience Numbers 1 and 2” so she was correct, but I asked her how she knew.  I was happy—except for the roommate stuff—how did she know I wasn’t really home?  “Because,” she told me, “you still call your dorm room ‘your room.’  You don’t yet call your room ‘home.’”
And I didn’t.  Not for the first year, because it wasn’t home.  Home was home—home was where my parents and sisters and cats and dogs lived.  My dorm room was ‘my room’ where I happened to stay for 9 months of the year with 2 very different, very—shall we say interesting­­—roommates.  Roommates, however, are a story for another time.  My roommate stories have nothing to do with home.
My next two years at college, however, my dorm room became “home.”  I loved those little rooms.  They were mine.  They were safe, and quiet, and they expressed me and who I was.  College was a safe place with my own rituals and routines and community.  Home was still home—the place with my sisters and my parents and my cat that looked pissed every time I showed up.  I had two homes then: the home of my childhood, and my home with my friends and my community.  I may not have always loved college or known quite what to make of it, but the space I lived in was mine: the community was a part of me and I was a part of it, and that very fact brought me home.
In Ohio, the first year was hard.  I had what we’ll call my “Roommates from Hell” experiences that I can only just laugh about now and, although I lived in a large apartment, I had only one small room I stayed in 98% of the time.  This room was smaller than any of my dorm rooms and had only enough room for my bed, my desk, and a very small path to walk between them.  That space, though, belonged to me.  It was my haven away from the insanity of grad school, from the chaos of living 9 hours away from everything I knew, and from the craziness that often occurred outside of my door.  As I settled more and more into my life in Ohio, it became home.  I had no choice—I was there, and I was in it for the long haul.  The home I pictured in my mind was my home.  My space.  At times, I was homesick for my family and for the scenery of the East coast.  There were times I wanted to see “my mountains” so badly it hurt, but in my soul, I was also home.  The home I grew up in slowly became “my parents’ house,” and whichever apartment I was living in was where I wanted to be when I craved going home. 
There were times, of course, when it didn’t feel like home: the three months I lived out of garbage bags because the apartment was infested with bedbugs.  The time the police searched my apartment for drugs because they smelled incense and assumed I was smoking pot.  The time I felt I had lost the safety and community grounding me and I couldn’t find a place in the world or in myself that felt even remotely like “home.” 
When it came time to apply for internships last year, I seriously considered not applying.  My life felt like it had fallen apart and was only just starting to be pieced back together: how could I leave when I had only just found home?  How could I voluntarily pack up and leave the place that had both torn me apart and also handed me back the pieces?  How could I dare to start over in a new physical home when my own internal home was missing?  I wanted to pull down the metaphorical gravel driveway of my soul and throw myself onto the bed I knew was mine that would welcome me with open arms, as if it had known I was missing and had been waiting for me to come along.  I consoled myself with the fact that I would be going back to Maryland—my original home.  I would be, I told myself, going home.  Home.  I would be going back to a place I once called home.
Perhaps it is because the 8th time one moves in nearly as many years, it takes you longer to claim the place as home.  Perhaps moving 9 hours away, even if it is to the same side of the country you were raised in, is always difficult.  Perhaps I am just not in the right place.  Maybe it’s because I haven’t given it enough time, or maybe the events of my past few years have led me just to be a little less trusting.  A little less likely to open my heart.  A little less likely to believe I can safely claim a physical, interpersonal, or emotional space as “home.”
All I know is this: this house is not mine.  It doesn’t make sense to me—the house that is--and I still, 4 months later, feel that I am walking into someone else’s space.  No matter how I clean it, it still feels dirty.  The light switches are perpetually in the wrong place.  The shelves are too high, the ants continue to march through my kitchen, and the heat sounds like someone let loose preschoolers with a combination of hammers and tap shoes into my pipes.  There is a distinct sense of not belonging that is pervading my time here.  As I work to continually reaffirm my belief that I am worthy of safety, worthy of community, and worthy of respect and friendship, this feeling of not belonging brings an uneasiness that is hard to overcome.  It is easier, almost, to sit with the not belonging than to challenge it.  It is easier to believe this not belonging stems from the unworthiness I’ve known for the past year and a half.  This sense of not belonging in my body, not belonging in community, not belonging in relationship. 
I know I am not alone in my struggle to find home.  From Dorothy clicking her heels three times, to country singers singing about country roads, to old adages claiming that home is where the heart is and Robert Frost claiming that home is where “when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” it seems this struggle to find and define home is universal.  Ideally, of course, home would not be a physical place.  Ideally, I could walk around knowing that I am home in my soul, in my body, in my heart.  When I have a secure base to go from—when I have a strong physical sense of home—perhaps I can get there, but I would be lying if I said I could find home that easily.  It is wrong to want that physical haven?  That safe place that belongs to me?  The community surrounding me that lets me know, in spite of my sense of unworthiness and non-belonging, that I actually belong?
What is home for you?  Where is home?  Have you found it?  What would it take for you to get there?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Chronology of Photographs, In Words

I am currently reading Pat Schneider's book, "Writing Alone and with Others." One of the writing prompts she provides is to bring up a mental image (or an actual photograph) and begin writing with "In this one you are..."

The following poem is what I came up with. In my "real" version of it, I played with the formatting and I like it better than I can present it here. (Darn you, Blogger, for limiting my creativity and stifling my style!) I changed the orientation of the paper to be horizontal and the three stanzas are in side-by-side columns. The entire poem then fits on one page. Some of the same lines then even line up across the paper, and that's pretty nifty. It kind of gives a physical demonstration of the meaning I want the poem to have, too, which makes me feel like a real writer. It also makes me feel unnecessarily obsessive about small things, but that's besides the point. It's kind of beautiful, even if the poem itself isn't altogether fabulous.

You should write a "In this one you are..." poem. Close your eyes for a moment and look for what image comes to you. Then share with us what you write. Or don't. Or do share it somewhere else.

Chronology of Photographs, In Words

In this one you are trusting. See how
it emanates from your eyes?
In their hazel-green-grayness, they are your
eyes, trusting the world the way
a 24-year-old should trust a world, you are
the way you wear your body, the
smile that shows the world
you. You
are a living, smiling, trusting daughter of dreams and earth
you live life quietly, out loud, see,
there, right there, how it carries in your voice?
It’s quiet, you, embodied,
living your words in your voice.
You’re young and the world’s uncertain
you know this, but you’re young so
trust this one. This one is for trusting, yes, so
trust it. In this one
you are

In this one you are hiding. See how
it fills your eyes?
They are your eyes—the hazel-green-gray
holds fear, but you,
a 25-year-old waiting to be unbroken, you are
the way you wear your body,
trying to fill it with something you believe you lost, but--see it?
It’s there—just there—beyond the
cloak of uncertainty,
the way you try to smile to show that you
are living, still,
a brave daughter of the world
you live life quietly, on the page, see
how it carries your voice?
It’s quiet, you, embodied on the page,
it’s your voice, still.
You’re young and the world’s uncertain
your very cells know this now
but you’re young so
trust this one.
This one, too, is for

In this one you are changing. See how
that confidence fills your eyes?
The hazel-green-gray depth of your eyes
holds wisdom,
a 26-year-old, loving the world, you are
The way you wear your body,
proud of the past it embodies, you are
confident, sometimes, and
gentle when you’re not—you
love the world and the place you take in it.
A living, smiling, wise daughter of
courage and faith, you
live life quietly, out loud, see
how you share it with the world?
You’re young and the world’s uncertain
but also for loving, so
trust this one. It will be hard, yes, but
in this one
you will also be