Sunday, December 30, 2012

Story of Kindness at the Turning of the Year

As we turn into the new year, I want to share my tale of a random act of kindness bestowed on me that I received as a result of a moms’ story swap. It all started in the fall of 2011, when Sudi cut his leg on a piece of glass on a Saturday morning. He could not stop the bleeding and he called me from Oakland in a panic.

After determining that none of the Urgent Care options in the East Bay are open on the weekends, we realized he had to go to the emergency room. A roommate drove him to the ER of a hospital that will remain unnamed. The ER doc stitched up the wound and released him without giving him crutches or a pain reliever (not even a suggestion of a pain reliever). He could not walk and he called me the next morning to tell me he had been in such pain that he hadn’t slept that night. He had nothing at home to eat and he couldn’t drive his standard transmission car with his leg out of commission. I called an adult friend of ours in Berkeley and she drove over and picked him up and took him back to the ER where a doc gave him crutches and some ibuprofen. He used the crutches for a week until the leg calmed down and he could put weight on it. The ibuprofen did the trick for the pain. All good. He went to his classes, didn’t fall behind in school; problem solved. Almost.

Problem solved until the ER bill arrived. The ER he went to is an “out-of-network” hospital on our health insurance, which means the insurance paid for very little of his visit. We received 4 bills – 2 from the hospital for the use of the ER facility for each of the visits and 2 from the doctor who treated him on each of his visits. The doc charged us for both visits even though the second one would not have been necessary had he done his job properly the first time. I called the doc’s accounting office and managed to get the second bill removed. Our portion of the ER bill was about $1200 for the first visit and $800 for the second. That was $800 for them to hand Sudi a set of crutches and some ibuprofen! I called the accounting office at the hospital and disputed the fee for the second ER visit. When the accounting clerk informed me that the fee could not be removed, I restrained myself and did not go off on a rant at the poor shmoo who got stuck dealing with me.

That shmoo transferred me to a woman in the hospital’s accounting office who could set up a payment plan for me to pay off the $2000 in small monthly increments for the next four years. While she was putting all the information into the computer, we got to chatting. I told her the short version of the story of my son’s injury and I was so exasperated by then that I had crossed over into semi-hysteria so I had her laughing. I can’t resist an appreciative audience, so I proceeded to tell her the epic story of Akili’s broken ankle of the previous year, which she found even more hilarious because by then I had reached a level of humor only attainable by Jewish mothers. Then she shared with me the story of the car she bought for her young adult daughter and how her daughter managed to get in an accident in the car during the six hours between purchase and securing insurance coverage (car was not insured when the accident occurred). Tables turned and she had me laughing my head off. After that, I could not resist telling her the story of how the first car we bought for a teenager to drive got totaled; complete with the phone company attempting to charge us $4000 to replace a telephone pole knocked over by the car thief who made off with the car. We were soon talking about all the cars our beloved offspring had managed to destroy. And about how much our children cost us in general, dropping a cell phone into a pot of boiling spaghetti and forgetting a digital camera at the Skate Park, knocking a computer off the desk and shattering the screen, rear-ending someone on the freeway, yanking the charger to a laptop from the wall socket so it landed in the dog’s water dish. Ayeee! Grown children are astonishingly expensive.

So this accountant-mom and I were on the phone together for ages, cracking each other up and commiserating. I gave her some useful advice about helping her teenager get into a California State University (she didn’t know about the eligibility index) and I told her something creative we had done on our taxes that was perfectly legal to help our family qualify for a student loan for our son. As our conversation started to wind down, after maybe an hour, the woman said to me, “I’m going to readjust your account here so that you don’t owe quite so much for these ER visits.”

“You can do that?” I asked

“Sort of. We won’t tell anyone,” she replied. She pressed a few computer keys and cut my outstanding balance on each account almost in half!

For the past year I have made monthly payments to pay down the remainder on the account. A few days ago, I called the accounting office at the hospital to find out how much I still owed, since they don’t send me statements. They informed me that I had $130 left on one account (for one visit) and that the other account had a $20 overpayment credit (for the other visit). That woman must have gone back into my account and reduced the charge even further at some time during the past year! I don’t know her name or how to find her again in the maze of voicemail and accounting procedures for that hospital. She apparently “forgave” me over $1200 on that ER bill as a result of our mom-to-mom conversation and I have no way to thank her.

As another year turns, thinking about my ER bill saga, I am reminded that the web of relationships that we create, even with people briefly encountered, are the heart of our lives. We need to take the time to chat, to share our stories, because those stories we share, especially the ones that make us laugh together, contain a tremendous power for transformation.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The End of the World: Personal, Global

On Dec. 20, 2012, one day before the Winter Solstice, longest night of the year, the world, according to the Mayans, ended. The next morning found me still sitting here watching the rain, just as I am today. Lightening and thunder are predicted, but no meteors or Armageddon. Yet today’s rain is distinctly different from rain before the End of the World for me personally, because my world did end in a way on Thursday. And I would like to imagine that it also ended globally in a way too.

On a personal level, Thursday was the day that I realized that I am going to financially survive putting all my children through college. For many years I have wondered about this and my struggles to creatively manage challenging finances have been stressful. But on Thursday, I made the second-to-last payment on my youngest’s tuition for the spring semester and he will graduate in May. I know exactly how much tuition I still owe, it’s not much, and I know I can pay it.

On Thursday I also received a deluge of emails requesting my services as a grant writer in the coming year. There is a terrific grant for Native tribes to establish their own tribal justice systems and I secured this grant for a consortium of local tribes last year. This year, in fact this past week (as the grant was announced for 2013), I confirmed that the consortium (again) as well as three other tribes want me to write the grant for them right after the new year. Additionally, an old college friend of mine just started a new job this past year and she brought me on board with the company as a contractual grant writer. They are throwing lots of excellent work my way. Suddenly, I am in high demand and am actually turning down work because I can’t do it all. Usually this is my slow season, but not this year. The upshot is that instead of continuing to borrow money, I began to pay off my debt on Thursday. I have a long way to go in that direction, but I have picked up the shovel and started to dig out of the hole. My world ended in an incremental significant way and a new world began for me on Thursday.

That was the personal. Here is the global. I have a ceiling fan in my bedroom (stay with me here). There is a switch on the fan to change the direction in which it spins. In one direction it blows the air down. In the other direction it sucks the air up. When I flip the switch, the fan slows down to a halt and then slowly begins to spin in the other direction, picking up speed. Do you know where this is going?

I would like to imagine that on Thursday the world reached that point of stoppage and began to spin in the other direction; that in some unaccountable, imperceptible, mysterious manner, our headlong rush to destruction as humans on the planet stopped spinning in that direction and began to spin in the opposite. “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” (John Lennon) – I still believe this could happen. What if? What if  Thursday really was the End of the World and we are about to start digging out? About to enter an age of peace, reconciliation, nonviolence, respect for and sensitivity to the cultures of others, good stewardship of the planet and our natural surroundings, justice, fairness; in short, a world that allows the human spirit to shine with all the potential within it. What if.

It is not too late to change the planet. Let’s start. Do whatever small actions you can in your life to make that change begin. Envision it. Visualize it. Create it. Manifest it. Here is my thought for 2013:  Be more transformative than adaptive.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sad Saga of the Sign

During the last week of 2011, I received an email from our former neighbor at the Ranch, who is a nationally recognized fine artist. He was excited to tell us that he had an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and that the Where the Heck Are We? Sign from the Ranch* was in the exhibit. He had also included, in the SFMOMA exhibit, a photo he took of the sign in its natural habitat on the tree on the road to the Ranch. He told us that he had asked the current owners of the property for permission to borrow the sign and they granted it on the condition that he return the sign to the tree after it came back from the SFMOMA. At first, I thought the whole thing was hilarious and I wrote a blog entry entitled “I Have a Painting in the SFMOMA.” But the sequence of events surrounding the removal of the sign soon went over to the dark side.

I decided to go to the SFMOMA to view the sign. I must have had temporary amnesia because I forgot how much I dislike most modern art. I was swiftly reminded as I stood in front of a 5x5 painting that was entirely one shade of charcoal gray. The plaque next to the gray square quoted the artist as saying something like “I am fascinated by the way light plays on objects.” Since there were no objects in the painting and the light on a solid square of gray was not noteworthy, I must conclude that the artist has gotten his hands on some really good drugs. Our artist-neighbor’s work was actually lovely. I could even recognize real things in it, like trees and people. When I turned a corner and saw the Where the Heck Are We? Sign, however, my heart sunk. I felt as though I was looking at a wild lion trapped in a cage. The sign had little meaning in the context of a museum. It wasn’t even particularly funny, just vaguely clever. Seeing the sign in a museum was creepy and it made me sad. While I was staring in dismay at the sign trapped in the museum, it occurred to me that I would never have agreed to send the sign out on loan to the museum in the first place had I still lived at the Ranch and still owned the sign.

While the sign was away at the museum, our artist-neighbor made a temporary substitute sign and nailed it to the tree. Within a few days, it was stolen (he looked all over for it, thinking maybe it fell down, but no, it was gone). This development in the journey of the sign posed a new dilemma. If the substitute sign was stolen, subsequent signs might also be stolen, including the original sign when it came home from the museum. (I now understand the meaning of the Christian term “original sign.” I always wondered about that. OK, bad pun, discriminatory joke; could not resist.) After much deliberation by the family who owns the Ranch and the artist-neighbor, they decided not to chance putting the original sign back on the tree. They agreed to make and post a new substitute sign, but I have it on good authority that they have not done this as yet. So at this writing (more than one year from the removal of the original sign), there is no sign on the tree. The artist-neighbor has the original sign in his house and he emailed to say that the next time he sees me he intends to give it to me. What on earth will I do with it? Sadly, I think the original sign has lost its meaning, its mirth, and its home. Perhaps there is no longer a purpose to the sign. Perhaps the question I wrote on that sign in 1991 has been answered.

Here is a photo that my friend Jessica took of the sign at home on the tree in the 1990s.

*For those of you who don’t know the story about the sign, here’s the short version. On our first night at the Ranch in 1991, after we put the children to bed, Ron and I were in our bedroom listening to the unbelievably loud cacophony of chirping crickets. Ron, a city boy born and bred, turned to me in mock horror and asked, “Where the heck are we?” (That was not precisely what he said, but this is a family blog and the sign was a public family sign.) Of course, we loved our 17 years at the Ranch. Moving there was one of the best decisions we ever made. But Ron’s question was so hilarious that I had to paint it on a sign and post it. I nailed the sign to a tree beside the dirt road leading to our property during our first week at the Ranch. Many a first-time visitor to the Ranch told us, “We thought we were lost until we saw the sign, recognized your sense of humor, and knew we were on the right road.”

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Reversing Trauma

I am presently working on a community assessment for the Oakland Head Start (OHS) program. On Tuesday this past week I had the pleasure of participating in a community meeting held by OHS to gather input from partners and program participants (parents) about what data to collect and what areas to investigate as part of the assessment. I love the Head Start program. I worked for our local Head Start for five years and I know from firsthand experience that this program (and Early Head Start) changes people’s lives. It truly makes a difference for children and families.

Each year Head Start programs all over the country conduct either a triennial full community assessment or an interim assessment update. The community assessment is used to guide development of program goals and objectives so that they are based on the most pressing needs, concerns, interests, and challenges of families enrolled in the program.

At the meeting on Tuesday, during my few minutes to present, I told the group that I thought the most valuable contribution I could make to the conversation was my knowledge, as a grant writer who works with professionals in communities across the nation, that there is an emerging focus on providing trauma-informed services to distressed families impacted by poverty. The federal government is interested in hearing how programming in human services, health, education, and justice will address the trauma that people are experiencing.

In a nutshell, this is what I shared with the group. Research shows that children who live in violent communities manifest symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Low-income inner-city children and families live in just such communities and frequently suffer from undiagnosed and untreated PTSD. These children must be linked to therapeutic services specifically designed to deal with the trauma and reverse the affects of PTSD. It is also critical that parents who suffer from undiagnosed and untreated PTSD are linked to therapeutic services. Children’s development derives directly from their parents’ ability to function and the extent of parents’ functioning and stability derives directly from their own childhood experience. Childhood trauma is referred to in the field as “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” or ACEs. ACEs include exposure to violence (as victim or witness) in the home and/or in the community, homelessness, food insecurity and hunger, loss of a parent (through abandonment, death, incarceration, or disappearance into substance abuse and/or mental illness), and other traumatic occurrences that cause fear, stress, and anxiety for children. Here are some facts about ACEs:  1) ACEs are surprisingly common; 2) ACEs still have a profound damaging effect, even 50 years later, although they become transmuted from adverse experience into organic disease, social malfunction, substance and behavioral addictions, and mental illness; 3) ACEs are the main determinant of the health and social wellbeing of communities throughout the country. People who have suffered ACEs convert the traumatic emotional experiences in childhood into physical ill health and risky/antisocial behavior later in life. People internalize the trauma and manifest it in their bodies in the form of chronic disease. Unless ACEs are addressed through trauma-informed therapeutic services (including newly emerging somatic therapies that utilize body work) specifically designed to reverse the impact of ACEs and to recognize and treat PTSD, then the ability of any service delivery program to make a permanent difference in the lives of children and their families is negligible.

So I briefly shared this with the group and when I got done speaking everyone in the room was quivering with the desire to jump in and respond. The educators and service providers in the group were practically giving off an electrical charge because my words resonated with them so strongly. A woman stood up and spoke in Spanish. She is a Head Start parent and she speaks no English. She told a story about her son, who was beaten in the street outside her home by a group of young men interested in stealing his hat. Could they just steal the hat? No, they had to beat him up first. He has had several brain surgeries since the beating and he is still struggling to recover. Tears ran down the woman’s cheeks as she spoke. She said that her family is now afraid to leave their apartment. Their life is impossible. There was more to her story, but the interpreter only gave us this much and I don’t understand Spanish so, regretfully, I did not get to hear everything the woman said. When she finished speaking, another woman, an Asian woman who is a service provider, spoke in English about a similar violent incident that occurred to a member of her family. She, too, cried as she spoke.

When the Asian woman finished telling her story, I said, “This is ground zero. What these women and their families have experienced is ground zero.” Everyone nodded in agreement. The discussion went on from there. Later, in the restroom, a woman told me that when I spoke about trauma-informed service delivery, she got goosebumps. She is a therapist and her dream is to open a trauma clinic in downtown Oakland to focus on providing trauma-informed therapy to address the impact that the epidemic of violence in Oakland has on children and families.

I rarely have the opportunity to meet in person with the people with whom I work. Although the meeting last week was emotionally wrenching, I cherish it. I was able to see the faces of many dedicated and committed educators, healers, and service providers in Oakland. Their task is huge. They have shouldered it with determination and love. I continue to try to assist them in their critical work through my gift with words. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Miriams Lost and Found

Warning:  Spoiler alert for those who have not yet read Memories from Cherry Harvest. This blog gives away a key plot feature of the book. Read no further if you have not read the book and you plan to do so!

* * *

On Thursday evening I met with a local book group that read Memories from Cherry Harvest. I was not surprised when the book group women complained about losing Miriam. Many readers have said to me that they were so upset when Miriam died. Everyone loves her. They can’t help themselves, really. I wrote her like that. She is everyone’s darling. The beautiful beloved Miriam. The book group asked if she was based on a real person. I explained that she was based on me, but me magnified to a much higher power. More vibrant, more generous, a better farmer, better able to mother all those children. (All the women in the book are me actually, some more than others.) We loved her so much, they said, we were so devastated when the Nazis killed her. And the way they killed her was so horrifyingly awful. How could you do that? How could you give her that terrible death?

This is what I told the book group, what I tell everyone:  I needed for you to fall in love with Miriam because her death needs to break your heart.

My friend Jessica emailed me while she was reading the book to tell me that if Miriam died in the war she would never speak to me again. I was sad, knowing what was to come. I received a grief-stricken email from Jessica a few days later. This semester, Jessica taught the book in her Women’s Studies Literature class at City College in San Francisco. I am scheduled to visit the class tomorrow (so looking forward to it). Last week Jessica emailed me:  The students in my class are so upset with you about Miriam.

When someone says to me, “I started your book. I love Miriam.” I always think, yes, well, love her with all your might; soon she’s going to break your heart.

In many ways the book revolves (or evolves) around the magnificent spirit of Miriam, the oppression that crushes her, how she is mourned, and the eventual resurrection of Miriam’s spirit, strong and indestructible. The readers join with the characters in their grief at the loss of Miriam, the trauma of losing her in such a horrific way, and the process of moving forward through that grief and trauma into a bright future. Thus the spiritual core of the book is the return of Miriam.

In truth, we lost thousands of Miriams in the Holocaust. We lost thousands of them in the pogroms in Russia, to the death squads in El Salvador, in the killing fields in Asia, on the plantations of the American South, during the theft of America from the Native people who lived here for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. We have prematurely lost thousands of Miriams in the wars that have swept across the globe throughout history. Millions. Billions. We have lost an incalculable number of beautiful Miriams; and even though I believe that spirits are reincarnated, that they return, often loved ones to one another; even so, isn’t it time for the violence against our beautiful Miriams of the world, our violence against all women, children, living creatures, isn’t it time for that to stop?