Thursday, January 26, 2006

Morning Glory, Morning Bright

Tagged earlier by Tara Dawn, I have chosen to respond in installments.

Part Four of 4 Jobs I have had:

Medical Social Worker: Career ladder - 1st social work job

My favorite client was Henrietta, an older woman, small in stature with bright brown eyes that seemed to warm you when they rested on your face. She was raising her grandchildren, a young boy and teen-aged girl. Her granddaughter eventually gave birth to a baby girl, then disappeared leaving the infant with Henrietta. Soon we would learn this baby, whom everyone called Patty, had sickle cell anemia.

Henrietta and I would conduct our regular meetings at her kitchen table, usually early in the mornings in the roomy co-op apartment where she lived. The sizzling aroma of bacon and eggs floated through the house as we drank tea at the breakfast table shortly after sending her grandson off to school.

As soon as we finished our talk Henrietta and I would go quietly into Patty’s room, where I would wake her, and off we would go to the kitchen where Henrietta would set up her potty chair. Patty sat while we drank another cup of tea. Getting Patty up from her crib was something I always looked forward to. She seemed to know me, and I loved to hold her close and watch the sleep slowly drift away. Seeing that sleepy face shift into the curious, spirited 2 year old she had become was like a miracle each time it happened. Her face would infuse the room with light; her giggles were a magic potion. Patty was washed in love with every word leaving Henrietta’s throat. It was contagious; there was more than enough love to go around.

One morning about 26 months after we met I got a telephone call from Henrietta whose voice was broken by loud wails of raw pain. Finally I was able to understand. She was telling me Patty had died. I had not even known Patty was in an acute episode of her illness. Everything happened so suddenly. Henrietta begged me to help her understand this, to get information from the hospital, to talk to a doctor – anything, just do something! She trusted me, and she knew I was professionally connected to staff at the facility where Patty was treated.

Eventually I was able to get a copy of the autopsy report to review. By then Henrietta had been catapulted into a place of remoteness, jarred by deep pain that took her joy and seemed to hide it permanently away. She was withdrawn and deeply depressed. I studied this disease - this baby-snatcher and thief of childhood and future. I understood better its course, the way it crawled through the blood, changing red blood cells into crescent shaped cells which could accumulate and block the passage of oxygenated blood to the body’s system, much like beavers erecting dams in a stream. These crises, also called acute episodes, occurred when blood flow was severely restricted. Organs could be damaged, sometimes beyond repair, if they were deprived of oxygen too long. This disease seemed to prefer specific cultures of people, those of African, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern descent. It had no preference for age – the genes were inherited and present at birth. I tried to teach Henrietta everything I had learned.

Henrietta and I finally made sense of this painful moment in life when a future was stolen, when an empty bed left a family broken like glass, in pieces on the floor. I was glad to help her understand this life-changing event, to support her through the grieving process, and to gently care about her and her big heart the way she cared for others. Henrietta eventually reclaimed her life, smiled when she remembered Patty, and thanked her God for the days they had spent in the southern sunshine.

We stayed in touch for many years, reminiscing about days long ago when we were both much younger, when a little child was such a morning glory in our lives. Later I would move into different areas of social work, finally settling in medical social work where I would eventually become the supervisor of a team located in the very facility where Patty had died. Patty guided me into my career as surely as if she placed my feet on the path.

Patty would have celebrated her 32nd birthday this year. Sweet dreams, sweet one.

*For purposes of confidentiality, identifying information has been changed.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Night Flight

Tagged earlier by Tara Dawn, I have chosen to respond in installments.

Part Three of 4 Jobs I have had:

Telephone Magazine Salesperson: College summer break

What a deep dive into the real world this job was! I was 19 years old with no concept of dishonorable employment and only one summer job on my resume. I realized something was amiss, however, when the white-haired woman who hired me, usually walking gingerly on crutches due to an undisclosed infirmity, suddenly picked up her crutches and galloped like a derby-running gelding when she thought she was alone in the office suite. I was dismayed. Later, deciding she might be a "fraud," a colleague and I tried to find her house in the safety of early evening light. We were curious to see if she had lied about her address, too. Yep, no such person, no such place, at least on that street. What did all this mean, we wondered.

Our boss and the owner of this magazine sales business was a smooth-talking, middle-aged, friendly and mild mannered guy. He hired young women to sell magazines by telephone and to schedule appointments for the following day when young male staffers would go into the field to pick up checks for the subscriptions we sold.

We had a typed speech to follow, a script, we called it. We struggled to convince our listeners to subscribe, leaving nothing to fate along our way. Spontaneous discussion was not part of our skill set development; there was a written response to every kind of “No” one could anticipate. We would search our script to find it and then, like parrots, spill it out as sincerely as we could. As I conducted these calls I had visions of television commercial salesmen, doors pushed shut in their faces while they attempted to sell vacuum cleaners. Many telephone receivers banged loudly in my ear during my short term employment. My naivete was quickly being "slammed" out of me.

I never learned what kind of business was being managed in that office, but magazine sales surely may not have been the focus! One morning a colleague who sat next to me during these scrambles into the jungle of urban America joined me in the elevator as we reported once again to the dreaded solicitation shuffle. We exited the elevator, walked down the hall, and opened the door to our office. Peering into empty space we stood there speechless for a minute. The office was clean; not a desk or telephone was left behind. The old woman, soft spoken and articulate, was missing in action. No crutches stacked against a wall. No sign of life but ours. No young males planning field visits. No movement but our breath filling the empty space before us.

I felt sick to my stomach and curious at the same time. For a moment it was like I had dreamed the entire scene. I slowly came to realize the truth. This “game” had been played before and was likely headed to a new location. I gazed at the emptiness and wondered if the perpetrators would be caught. I hoped. Handcuffs seemed like a nice ending to this job. It didn’t happen.

There would be another time in my future, several years later, when a man using crutches would pull them up and sprint toward a bus he wanted to catch as it pulled away from the curb. I watched from a window in the office where his disability checks originated. But, that is another story for another time...

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Long Ago and Far Away

Tagged earlier by Tara Dawn, I have chosen to respond in installments.

Part Two of 4 Jobs I have had:

Office Filing Clerk: United States Air Force Base; Summer job

What a job - a dream job for a 17 year old! A few positions at a nearby Air Force Base were designed specifically for high school graduates who would be leaving for college in September, and I was the lucky recipient of an early appointment! Good salary and good benefits, especially for a "first" job with no experience in the working world.

I was offered an office assistant position with a team of 3 men inside a larger department regulating the purchase of Air Force vehicles. No one had ever managed the clutter or brought order to the filing system these men had developed. And, no woman had ever been a part of the team in this office which they called home for 8.5 hours a day.

This team of three, Lucas, Barry, and Jack, worked hard and enjoyed each other. They were excited about the arrival of the new office assistant and the balance of energy a female would bring to the team.

Lucas, stoic and sure-footed, a man in his late 30s, was the manager of this work group. Jack, the handsome and youngest man, was the comedian who painted the walls with laughter and charm. A fatherly type nearing retirement age, Barry was quiet but warmly inviting.

At first, I was a little intimidated by Lucas whose reserved demeanor met me at the door. He took charge with easy firmness, his quick aptitude waving flags as he spoke. I learned there was sensitivity lurking inside his detached manner, but he was a taskmaster who expected hard work and consistency.

Apparently, disorganization had never concerned Lucas since papers were stacked high across open spaces like fences marking territory. No matter in which direction I looked, I was staring into heaping drifts of papers piled haphazardly in front of me. First I would have to understand the function of the papers in order to organize them appropriately. I had my hands full.

These men treated me like a valuable gem they had just uncovered. They were respectful and always looking out for me. I was pampered while learning about office politics and being introduced to the massive paperwork trail of our federal government.

The equal rights activists a few years later would have frowned on the pleasure I took from being spoiled. Once, when the office A/C system stopped working, they sent me to the library to work, pushing a good book into my hands with verbal permission to leave early since they didn’t want me to get too hot! They doted on me and made my work life easy and fun. It was a mutual admiration society in which we were all thriving.

Suddenly Lucas was promoted and transferred to SAC headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, and I was forced to get honest with myself. During the course of this assignment I had developed a huge crush on this man who was my supervisor, and I was as sad to learn he was leaving as I was relieved. He was married and 20 years older; I was innocent, afraid, and on my way to college in another city. It never occurred to me to share my feelings; they scared me too much. The tenderness I felt toward him would remain my secret. Nevertheless, the prospect of telling him goodbye was very painful, and I sobbed when the moment arrived.

Several weeks later at the end of my summer appointment when it was my turn to leave, Lucas surprised me and the others by showing up at my “going away” party. I never knew if he came back specifically for the party or if he had business on base or in the city that day; he had been in Omaha for 2 weeks. Crying as I opened the gift from the staff, a hematite and pearl necklace which I still have, I was sad to tell them all goodbye. Lucas stayed a little longer than the rest, and holding my face in his hands while thanking me for the summer work I had done, he leaned down and kissed me gently. Then he turned and left. We would never see each other again. He was gone in much the same way he arrived, quickly and without fanfare.

We exchanged one letter and had one telephone conversation during my freshman year in college. Both were casual and well-wishing without mention of our last encounter or the kiss. We never spoke or corresponded again.

Many years later when I was telling this story to a friend, I decided to try to call him. I didn’t know if he was still in Omaha. It was now 18 years later, and I was happily involved in my career and my relationship, but I remained curious about this man who had stirred such a whirlwind of confusion and feelings in my innocent heart so many years before.

Omaha directory assistance gave me the phone number, and I nervously made the call. His wife answered the phone, and I introduced myself as someone who had worked for her husband many years ago and asked to speak with Lucas. She was silent for a moment, and I was immediately concerned that she resented my call. She finally broke her silence and quietly said that Lucas had died of lung cancer several years before. Thanking me for calling, she shared a little about his struggle with this disease and the difficulty he had endured his last year of life. I listened to his widow’s story, and I cried.

His wife was a lucky woman. Long ago a very nice man made the right decision.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Red Clay in the Sunset

Ok, Tara Dawn. I will cooperate with your tag, but I will do this in installments, making you work hard for the information, reading through post after post to finish it up! ~ smiling ~

Part One of 4 Jobs I have had:

Brick Cleaner: First job; approximate age 9

Coated with white cement, thick in places like hardened icing, these red bricks had been used as part of some structure somewhere else, and my father wanted them cleaned for the new patio he was having laid. I was assigned the job of cleaning the bricks for the wage of a penny a brick.

I was obsessed with these bricks, young entrepreneur that I was. "...Money makes the world go around, the world go around..." I derived the most pleasure from my painstaking efforts to clean each one smooth, knocking the white cement out of the 2 holes using a chisel and a hammer, and then cleaning the edges of each brick carefully so as not to break the clay. Over and over I hammered, hands becoming rough from my labor. I worked tediously at this job, each brick gleaming once again in its newfound red glaze.

Proud I was, standing by my pile of bricks, beaming when the day's count was made and the money changed hands. Counting as I cleaned, it was easy to decide how much longer I would work each day - I liked to be paid in dollar bills, big money for a young child in the '50s, so my goal was usually 100. Sometimes I made the count in two days. I didn't work 40 hours a week in those days, but I was, after all, doing hard labor – and I was a child of 9.

First jobs are important milestones. If life had just remained so simple...

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Let Freedom Ring

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Martin Luther King, Jr., April 16, 1963


Photograph of M L King's gravesite at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia. July, 2003.
King built his peaceful revolution movement on the work of Mahatma Gandhi who led India to peaceful independence in 1947.

A statue of Gandhi was given to the city of Atlanta by the Indian government and stands outside the M L King Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Where Are the Ducks?

Disconcerting doesn’t quite describe the atmosphere or the feelings floating around in the puddles of the Pacific NW. Land sliding down hillsides and caves opening where earth once supported the roads are enough to frighten even the bravest of residents. I caution my husband to travel down our mountain carefully, taking a road which seems more likely to be held by firm ground. I worry that the narrow street winding around the back side of the mountain could end up in a pile of mud at the bottom.

All my life I have heard about rain in this part of the country. Until now I have seen nothing like this – 25 days of consistent rain. Past winters were drizzly, but it is the downpours this year which are creating the floods. It all began during Christmas with what they call the Pineapple Express which blew in from Hawaii and stormed the west coast. When we returned from our Christmas vacation we were met with rain and landslides in northern California and icy patches mixed with snow in the higher elevations of Oregon’s Interstate 5. Rain and wind slammed the coast and sent precipitation east. It never stopped.

I don’t usually mind the rains. They give me permission to lounge by the fire, read a new book, write letters, or take long, lazy naps. I like to listen to it tapping on the skylights and think about nature’s refreshment. But this is too much!

Now I worry that the many bulbs we planted in our gardens here will decay as they sit in pools of water. At least we know the evergreens towering high above us will have plenty to drink this winter. Usually the canopy made by their branches interferes. Now some are tumbling down in places as the saturated earth can no longer support their weight.

Come spring the gardens, deeply watered, will flourish in our emerald city’s sunlight. Until then, the ducks have free rain…oops…rein.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Some Leave Us Too Soon

I was reminded recently of the poet Jane Kenyon and her husband, Donald Hall. Jane left us far too soon when leukemia came stalking and stole her away at the age of 47, almost 11 years ago. Donald is still writing at Eagle Pond Farm, their home in New Hampshire, a family home where his grandparents once lived. He spent childhood summers there in the same farmhouse which remains his beloved residence.

After years of crazed anguish in the wake of Jane's absence, he has created a bridge over this rocky chasm and lives more peacefully in his solitude. He is writing, and has made space in his life for companionship again.

Donald Hall said during an interview "What was the most beautiful thing in our marriage was when we weren't aware that we were going to die. And we just had our routine. You know you look back on it, and you think, 'Why wasn't I aware of how blissful that was?' But if you'd been aware of how blissful it was you would have been dreading losing it. Anybody who's been through anything like this knows what I mean." In a letter he wrote to Jane shortly after her death, a poem entitled "Letter With No Address," Hall wrote "four weeks/since you lay on our painted bed/and I closed your eyes." and "Your presence in this house/is almost as enormous/and painful as your absence."

Jane, younger by almost 20 years, was once a student of Hall's at Michigan, becoming his lover and eventually his wife. Theirs was an interesting life, separate during the day as they each wrote and worked in opposite ends of the house, yet connected in all ways. Lust would beckon them to make dates for love in the afternoon following mornings of hard work. This love affair endured until her death and captivated him long after she left this earth. I recently found Jane's poem, "The Shirt," fun-filled and spiced with her sensual sense of humor.

Hall chronicles this journey through leukemia, Jane's last days, and finally her death in his book, Without. I have just ordered The Painted Bed and The Best Day, The Worst Day. Both of these detail personal moments of this life which was blessed and rich yet tormented by impending death. Jane's posthumous book of poetry, Otherwise, is another one I shall order. Her poem "Let Evening Come" is a favorite of mine.

There is a fabulous essay written by Liam Rector who knew them both well and whose friendship with Donald and Jane offers a zoomed-in view of their life. His wedding to Tree Swenson, director of Academy of American Poets, was held in the back garden of Eagle Pond Farm. Swenson designed the covers of Jane's books, and only days before Jane died they collaborated on the painting which Jane wanted to grace the cover of Otherwise. Rector and Swenson had just gotten a puppy which they had named Kenyon when Donald called to tell them it was time to drive up to the farmhouse to tell Jane goodbye. Kenyon accompanied them on this sad journey.

My favorite of Donald's work is his prose, actually, specifically Life Work, which I have given as a gift several times. It was my initial introduction to him and this interesting life he lives. Through it I also found Jane and her beautiful poetry and later the PBS emmy-winning film, A Life Together. The film brought me their poetry readings and a glimpse of Eagle Pond Farm. It is a fascinating portrait of an intimate life lived and shared in love and poetry.

If you don't know these two exciting writers, be sure to check them out. It will be a delicious treat on a cold, winter's day.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Spring of Winter

What promise a new year holds. It is a time when many of us become mapmakers, formulating our plans for new directions to the new places we want to go, charting our courses, fantasizing about the prospects and idealizing to some extent, but most of all renewing our hopes and dreams.

This time of rebirth kicks off such energy in some of us. I find myself willing to examine the parts of my life which keep me tied to results which no longer work. I want a change. I want to find a different path.

Why do we lose our way in the forest a few months after making these life altering commitments? January is filled with vitality and zealous affirmation. In February the momentum wanes, and by March or April many of us are back to old habits or at best revised newer ones. I want to make a firm commitment to make a lasting commitment! :))

There is something about a new year which propels us into a modus operandi of change and which presents us with a pattern to cut the cloth. Perhaps it is buried in the process of saying Goodbye to the yesterdays of the past year. Perhaps it is bound in the tradition of ritual. Maybe it is simply part of the seasonal shifting of nature. As the year ends could it be that we prepare for spring's renewal and begin to design our internal gardens? We are, afterall, perennials in a variety of ways.

No matter why resolution permeates the early days of January, I have determined that the most important gift I can give myself and others in the coming year is an attitude adjustment! It is time for me to look more often at the abundance of my life, to give thanks for the joys which surround me, to be more grateful and always to be gracious. Bad habits can outlive their usefulness in our lives and my whining is late to its date with the guillotine.

I hope that the coming year will bring peace to every corner of the earth and that the energy we learn to focus on this, our tender earth, will calm its inner conflicts and churnings, quieting it and bringing internal peace. The natural disasters of 2005 spoke loudly to this need for attention, for relief and comfort.

May we pay careful attention to Mahatma Gandhi's words: "We must become the change we want to see." Now, imagine the cummulative effect of such change....