Sunday Morning~The Carrot

What a funny word, carrot.  I never know how to spell it. I always have to play around with the r and t and see how many of them look right.

When my husband left me many years ago, I was devastated and wanted to run away. We had built a big house together and cared for it together.  We had raised our children there and two of them were still in high school. I had a big garden and created a yard that required a lot of maintenance. I felt I couldn’t handle it all by myself as well as work enough to support my family and get my kids through college. All I could think about was bolting and never facing the new life I needed to build on my own. I loved my house.  I loved my garden. But at that time, when I looked around (through continual tears) all I saw was a ton of work I felt I couldn’t do by myself.

I was crying all the time, and my friends, bless them, would listen for hours on end. One of them, a carpenter and builder, told me there was no job in that house that I couldn’t learn to do myself. I didn’t believe it right away, but he patiently taught me how to fix, renovate, and maintain just about everything. Angel, he was. But I still felt like running away. I had been handed all the responsibility and I didn’t want it anymore. The house was too big for just me and two of the kids.  When they left, I thought it would be ridiculous to be there alone.

It was September when the final blow came and he said he wasn’t coming back. It was the month I had always loved the most. We had been married in September. I loved the change in the air. I loved harvesting my vegetables, canning, and getting ready to tuck in for winter. That year, unable to face my sadness, I had fantasies of getting in my car and just driving without a destination. Never coming back. My kids kept me from doing that. It was bad enough that they lost their father and the family as they knew it, I couldn’t have them lose me, too. And though sometimes I thought they’d be better off without the basket-case of a mother they now had, I still retained a shred of sanity (thank god) and put one foot in front of the other. I felt I couldn’t make a sound decision.  I didn’t know what to do.

So I focused on tasks. I tried not to think too far ahead (I think someone told me to do that) and would talk to myself like this: “Pick up the toothbrush. Put toothpaste on it. Open your mouth. Brush your teeth.”  Stuff like that.  It was exhausting.  One day I went into the garden, a place I usually felt completely grounded and happy. I thought of that and started crying again.  I felt like he had ruined that for me too.

“Bend over. Pick a carrot. Shake it off.” My carrots are usually small because I don’t take the time to thin them properly.  But that day, I followed my own instructions and pulled a huge carrot out of the ground. It was so much bigger than what the top predicted be underneath. I marveled at the size and the perfection of this beautiful root. I stared at it. I thought, this is what I need to be, a carrot.  Be like a carrot. Grounded. Rooted. Grow deeper. Stay rooted. Forget what the outside looks like. Grow deeper.

Stay here.

Sunday Morning~Right?

When I was a visiting nurse during the Reagan administration there were a lot of cuts to health services for the poor and underserved.  We had to make decisions about who would receive services and for how long. Our team would have long discussions about these decisions and often there were disagreements.  We had a patient who had ulcerated burns on his legs and we went in daily for his bandage changes. Since the agency was paid per visit, this brought in revenue.  At a certain point, my opinion was that this person could change their own bandages and our resources could be utilized elsewhere.  There were others on the team who agreed, but our supervisor did not. One time while making my case to her and describing my confusion about why some patients, needier than this one, have services cut, she explained in a hushed whisper, that she was a conservative republican and  agrees with all the cuts that are being made in services, but the agency needs the money, so we have to keep providing it to those who have a payment source, whether they need it or not.  I was 24 years old and supporting my husband through school.  I was pregnant with our second child and needed this job that paid a whopping $6.12 per hour, so I stopped arguing and complied. But this was my first insight into how broken our system is, and it has only gotten worse.

Though I begrudgingly complied with this, I did talk with others about the supervisor’s rationale. I did that in hushed tones, fearful of losing my job. There were many political arguments in my social circle at the time and I would often bring up this example. “Republicans are hypocrites!”, I’d spew whenever I could, but nothing changed.

I never threatened to expose this supervisors actions to authorities. I complained about it a lot, but that was a lot of wasted energy, as complaining often is. I realized this past year when I was constantly complaining about our current system, that I was turning into a person I didn’t want to be. Feeling unheard, undervalued, exhausted, and frustrated with advocating for women and going nowhere, I quit. But I didn’t give up the fight. I wrote about it. In meeting after meeting where my voice was hushed and demeaned, I’d listened to lies being emphatically pounded out as truth, and I finally stopped playing the game, and wrote.

This blog started out as a commentary on what was happening in Congo and insights about the book. But not having any rules or a clear goal, I’ve let it wander down an unmarked path. It’s turned into a sort of public journal, something I never really foresaw. To my knowledge, it’s legal to write about my experience and perceptions, after all, it is my opinion. My take on things. This country so rabidly protects the second amendment, I’m assuming we’ll do the same for the first. I honestly never thought people would read this, but it turns out, that they do! And some people don’t like it. So…

If we are really gong to stand by our convictions, it should be fine to make them public, right? What’s the big secret? If you want to say that Ronald Reagan was the best thing that ever happened to this country, then quietly milk that system for your own means, you shouldn’t feel like hiding that, right? You believe what you are doing is right, right? So if you really believe what you are doing and saying is right, then no problem with me writing about it, right?

Sunday Morning~ Journey's End

It’s the first Sunday in many weeks I am sitting in my own home with this laptop and my tea in my favorite mug. I slept poorly after twenty-five hours of driving in two days. At one point I thought I’d amuse myself by counting how many states I’d driven through, but then my mind started wandering and I had to keep starting over.  I thought of many things I wanted to write about today.  I’d see some glorious scene of silos and farm house and cloud-scape and it would trigger some perfect title for my Sunday prose, and now I can’t think of a single one.

As I got closer to home, I felt some anxiety. This is not the usual emotion I have when I get close to home.  I’m usually relieved and happy to arrive at my anchorage. I had been gone a long time this time.  And it’s fall and that means fall chores. And guests are arriving soon.  And I need a new roof, and I heard it rained seven inches recently, and it’s cold and I’m still wearing flip-flops. I couldn’t warm my feet last night.  I shivered through most of the night until I finally got up and got a heating pad to put around my feet. I had fitful dreams.

How did it all turn so quickly?  Fatigue? Maybe.  On Friday, I drove from Kathy’s loving arms all the way to Ruth’s. Fifteen hours, three accident-causing traffic jams in Pennsylvania, then New Jersey traffic, then Manhattan traffic, then to the garage on 58th.  I got out of the car and told them to keep it. Ruth had the wine poured and we talked, catching up, until way too late. On the road again yesterday, I realized that driving to New England on Columbus Day weekend was very poor planning. The four hour drive to Beth turned to six.  More arms. More love. Then four more hours home. And now what?

I’ve been living in a little bubble the past seven weeks. A magnificent hike in the Alps, reunions with dear friends in foreign cities, family visits on beautiful beaches, then two weeks of story telling, book signing, eating, drinking, friend making, soul searching, ass-widening, fun in Tennessee and Kansas. Whew! I got in my car to head northeast toward the Appalachian Mountains before sunrise on Friday. The goodbye to Kathy was nowhere near good enough. In my rush to get on the road in order to make it to New York, the hug and kiss and thanks and goodbye were so inadequate. I thought a lot about her and our friendship on my solitary drive.  I felt badly I didn’t get to say goodbye to Michael. (Gone to work already?!) I fell into their house hungry and full of stories two weeks earlier. I held Kathy hostage for those two weeks while Michael fended for himself. I realized I’d left the light on in my bedroom and the sheets in a ball at the end of the bed. I meant to put them in the washer. I meant to text and tell her that.

I thought about the introduction she did for me at one of the talks. She called me “her hero” and I wanted to cut her off and tell the audience that, “No!  She is mine!” I can’t remember what I said when I started speaking; I know I did a thank you, but it was nowhere near good enough. I could have spent the whole hour telling Kathy and Me stories. And then remembered I was there to tell Beatrice and Gerardine stories, so got on with it.

I’ve written before about how our friendship started. Pals in first and second grade, BFFs in seventh, eighth, and ninth. High school diversity sent us on different paths, so we didn’t spend as much time together, but the bond was still there. She was always encouraging me, always trying to make me a better everything––––dancer, actress, girlfriend, beauty queen, singer, guy-getter. I needed a lot of help with that last one. I was a wallflower of the highest degree until, under her careful tutelage, I started blooming.  Once when I was too scared to ask my crush to the Junior Women’s Club dance, she yelled to him in the hallway, “Kevin! Come here!  Linda has something she wants to ask you.” Then she smiled at me and walked away. I was horrified, and vowed to kill her later, but was forced to stupidly and clumsily ask him to the dance, adding that it was ok if he said “No.” Kathy knew I wouldn’t harm her. She wasn’t worried, as she sallied down the hallway to play rehearsal or student council meeting. She’d done her community service for the day.

I grew up in a house where college was not only expected, but required. We would have been disowned if we even considered not going. In fact, my youngest brother was disowned when he dropped out his senior year (the ultimate fuck-you to my father). Kathy didn’t grow up with those expectations. I graduated from a good nursing school with no debt. I got to experience city life, be exposed to great thinkers, and diverse ideas. That was a great gift. Kathy’s gifts were different.  She had loving parents whereas mine were over-critical and strict. My parents thought she had “way too much freedom” and were critical of her lifestyle. They made her feel badly and I hated them for that. I tried to make up for it with my worship. I hung out a lot at her house just to soak up what it must feel like to have parents that like you. I was oblivious to any of her family problems.  To me, they were just full of love.

So off she goes, into the world, with limited expectations and resources. Yet, she is one of the most successful women I know. Who else can get an audience and producer to show up at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday morning to do a taping for a TED talk audition?! She’s like the fucking Pied Piper!

It’s been fifty years since we met. And here we were all these decades later, laughing and singing as we hit the road on an epic tour–––five states, colleges, high schools, rotary clubs, churches, and bookstores, organized and executed by my hero.  At thirteen, we dreamed together about doing big things while we walked around town or listened to music in her basement. And we are doing bigger things than we had dreamed. On our first day driving we talked so much it seemed like we arrived in St Louis by magic. Same thing the next day when we got to Kansas. Five days later the car ride home was more subdued. We were tired. We talked less. We said to each other, “Wait. Are we on the right road? Did we go through Illinois on the way out there? Did we go through Kentucky? Really? How could we not notice we went though Kentucky?”  I realized I have to be careful when I laugh and drive.

She still makes me laugh more than anyone else. She still amazes me at her ability to community organize. I still feel like that thirteen year old, clinging to her advice. We congratulate ourselves on what a good team we are. We brainstorm short and long term goals. We feel so grown up. We have credit cards and our own cars. We know where we came from and where we’ve been.  We’ve learned what roads we don’t want to take again. We buck each other up, don’t take each other’s shit, and know what we really mean. We are teenagers at heart who feel like we can do anything together.  The goals are more noble–––saving the world in addition to our skin. We’ve worked hard all our lives and want the work to be more fun, more directed, more exciting and rewarding. We know we can do this better together. We trust each other. Me and my hero.

Sunday Morning~Where has the love gone?

When I was in Shamwana, I would go to bed on Saturday night and feel excitement that there were just a few hours left before I could get up and write. I was so bubbling over with stories, my only thought was how to fit them all in.  I worried I’d have to give up the computer before they all came out my fingertips.

Now, I often fall asleep wondering what I should write about.  There is no law saying I need to keep this up every Sunday, but I’m compelled to. Sometimes, on say Tuesday, something will happen, and I’ll think, “This is a great story,” or it will trigger thoughts about my experience in Congo and I’ll consider writing about it.  I could certainly write on Tuesdays, but something stops me.  I have this little obsession about keeping the Sunday thing sacred. Then I stress about it when my Sunday is full and I’m not sure when I’ll fit in time to write.  It’s a game I play with myself.

I’m in Kansas with Kathy. We’ve been on a road trip that took us through a few states since we left Tennessee. We talked and laughed a lot along the way, just as we expected.  We arrived to visit dear friends of hers, we’ve made new friends, learned some history about our country, certainly learned some geography, shared stories and taught about Congo, MSF, and what it means to us in the states. We’ve had political discussions, listened to others’ points of view, and mourned for parents who lost their children in yet another violent attack on our schools. And yesterday, learned with sinking hearts, about the MSF Afghani hospital being bombed by our own military.

When I tell the story about Shamwana, I want to give readers and audiences the sense that they know the people as I did.  When we hear about those at war in mainstream media, it tends to be in a way that shocks us (as it should) but to a point where we only see the victims as statistics and not humans.  We seldom learn their stories. The media can’t do this, maybe because there are too many of them, or maybe it’s not shocking enough to tell stories about butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. But, if we try, we can learn the stories of the victims who are killed by gun violence.  I’m sure it’s possible. But it is getting to the point where that would be a full time job, and how many of us take the time to do it?

I’ve read a lot about World War II, and often wonder how life went on in countries where there was active fighting. How could you go to church? How could you go to the market, or anywhere? But people did. Well, I’m starting to feel like we are at war here in our own country, and we still have dinner, go to church, drive our cars on road trips or to the mall or to the ball game. It seems the violence, no matter how much we hate it, goes on and on. And we live with it. We might talk about feeling scared sending our kids to school. We might have new regulations that give us a sense of better security, but, like taking off our shoes at the airport, it doesn’t change violent behavior. And we still send our kids to school.

The statistics are nauseating. Our military makes mistakes and bombs innocent people (and I don’t care what hospital it was; it was a fucking hospital) and there is shock and sadness, and then it happens again. We elect the same legislators over and over who vote to keep our schools unsafe, our reputation around the world disgraceful, and our poor poor. They vote to keep women’s rights and services substandard. And somehow they stay in power.

Money, money, money. I fear a real revolution is brewing. Is it possible to have it be a peaceful one? How big can the rift grow between the haves and the have-nots before there is a complete disintegration of our society? How many kids have to die? There is a breaking point somewhere. I thought that yesterday when I described what tipped the balance into civil war in Congo. Factors have to line up.  Rebel forces were brewing for years as the disparity grew between the haves and the have-nots. Hmm, history shows us that happened a few other times in the world, yet, we don’t learn.  The greed and power take over and common sense is lost.  We have mad men in our congress.  There’s that too.

When I tell the story of Shamwana, many in the audience ask me what they can do to help. Many want to feel that they can offer something to better the world. It’s definitely a recurring theme when they learn the stories of the people, not just the country. But I don’t hear people asking that same question when we discuss what is happening in our own country. Why is this?  Why do we feel so powerless to change things here?  We can campaign for reasonable legislators, we can buy locally, we can practice open minds and hearts, but still the madness continues and we feel like our actions don’t matter. How many have to die before we wake up? I understand the ripple effect.  I know that one small action can make a difference. I preach that all the time. But it’s hard to keep the spirit up when the country we call home shows this ugly face to the world.

Brainstorm. What can we do?