Rad, Nasty Women (and Nurses)

Detail of papercut illustration by Miriam Klein Stahl, Rad Women Worldwide, p. 95

Rad, as in radical. Nasty, as in the newly reclaimed feminist term for strong, powerful, capable women (thanks to Trump’s misogynistic mansplaining over Hilary Clinton in the last presidential debate).

Books, as usual, have helped me through the latest vicissitudes of politics and of life. And one new book in particular has been my constant companion over the past several months. Rad Women Worldwide: Artists and Athletes, Pirates and Punks, and Other Revolutionaries Who Shaped History, written by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2016) is quite simply a lovely, inspiring, and comforting book. The strong black and white papercut illustrations are striking and complement the brief write-ups of the lives of forty rad, nasty women from all around the world and throughout history.

Mixed in with familiar rad women, including Frida Kahlo, Malala Yousafzai, and Aung San Suu Kyi, and less familiar women such as Enheduanna from 4,300 years ago in Mesopotamia, who is the world’s oldest known named author. She wrote hymns and poems on clay tablets using Cuneiform script, and she wrote in first person. Rad Women Worldwide also includes at least a few nurses. Irene Joliot-Curie, daughter of Marie Curie, went to nursing school in Paris during WWI and then traveled with her mother to field hospitals to train doctors in the use of their newly invented mobile X-ray machines. And the indomitable Emma Goldman worked as a nurse and midwife in the 1980s with impoverished immigrant women in the tenements of New York City. Yes! Rad, nasty female nurses unite!

Although not included in this book, some of the other rad, nasty female nurses I admire are the following:

  • Dorothy Day (I highly recommend her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, a rich and thought-provoking book.) I love her statement, “Writing is an act of community.” 
  • Mary Seacole, a Jamaican-British creole nurse who worked in the Crimean War and was shunned by none other than Florence Nightingale. Seacole published her memoirs under the lovely title, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. It is a rollicking good read.
  •  Ruth Lubic, nurse midwife and amazing nurse leader/pioneer. She founded the NE Washington, DC Family Health and Birthing Center using her MacArthur (“Genius”) award money. I love this video interview with her, where she opens with this statement: “I told the staff, when I walk in this door, I want to feel love.”

On Confession

img_9362Like the tragedies in public amphitheaters of Ancient Greece, we live in an age of the spectacle of public confession, in TV talk and reality shows, internet chat rooms, other evolving media sources, and in books. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, or a combination (likely) for individuals, families, communities, and our society is a matter of debate. Do we confess to gain a sense of catharsis, or as an attention-getting device to say “look world: I exist! I may be weird, but I exist!”  Do we confess out of hope for fame and fortune? For the vicarious pleasure we get out of viewing train wrecks of people who are worse off than we are? And why is this a particularly American thing to do? (Because it is.) Reflecting back on the similarities with the tragedies of Ancient Greece, is it part of our version of democracy? These are questions I asked myself throughout the process of writing my first book—Catching Homelessness— as a way of informing and forming the content of my writing.

There are some events in my life that I’d rather not remember—and hope never to repeat—such as dips into deep depression and homelessness. In my book, I decided to discuss these episodes of my life, not as a seal of authenticity or to elicit pity or revulsion, but because they are essential for the story that I am telling, and for the policy issues I seek to illuminate. Other aspects of my life—details about certain significant events or people in my personal life, such as my early marriage, divorce and family life—I chose to allude to, briefly summarize, or leave out. For me, these were both aesthetic and ethical decisions that I stand by. They are not essential to the story that I am telling, to the main message of my book.


Note: The paragraphs above (with the exception of the final sentence) were originally included in earlier drafts of the “Author’s Note” section of my book manuscript. I don’t remember my rationale for having deleted them from the final version of my book. I think they are important issues, especially in light of our current national conversation on gender-based violence, power dynamics, and on who gets to tell their stories of trauma. Women need the freedom to be able to tell their stories in the ways they want to tell them. And to be listened to.

On Faith

Camp Hanover chapel by the lake: My shadow

“What about your faith? Where is it now? And what do you think is the role of faith in doing health care and social justice work with people marginalized by poverty and homelessness?”

These are some of the most oft-asked questions at author readings for my nonfiction book, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net. The questions typically come from people who have read my book, or who at least know what it is about. Because at the personal narrative level, my book is about my growing up in—and finally getting out of— the Bible Belt South, surrounded (and sometimes suffocated) by conservative Christian values. It is also about my work as a nurse with people experiencing homelessness in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia in the 1980s. I worked for an evangelical Christian health care clinic until I was mandated to provide what I viewed (and still view) as unethical care: being asked to pressure patients with HIV/AIDS to repent of their “sins” before they died, and being prohibited from providing my female patients with pregnancy options counseling. There were, of course, other factors in my life, but because of this I lost my job, family, and home and became homeless for six months. I also lost my faith.

The truth is that I have never found my faith again. I do have a deep and rich spiritual life, and I am grateful for many of the faith-based experiences of my childhood. For many years after my own spiral into and back out of homelessness, I held a deep suspicion towards any explicitly faith-based organization or person. I have, thankfully, grown past that, and I have respect for the people and organizations that “live their faith” in humanistic and non-dogmatic ways.

This past Sunday, being back in Richmond, I was invited to talk about my book with the adult Sunday School class at my childhood Presbyterian church. With some trepidation, I accepted, and I am glad I did. They were a warm and welcoming group with many excellent questions, including ones on how they could be more effective at preventing homelessness. And sitting in the front row was my Junior HighSchool and Sunday School teacher, Betsy Rice, smiling and cheering me on. She reminded me that I organized a sit-in to protest something in her math class and that she let me get away with it. Betsy, who is now close to 100 years old, has organized a church outreach program to the adult group homes near the church. She helps provide on-site activities and mentoring services for a very marginalized population literally next door to the church. She is an inspiration and reminds me of the good things that a living faith or a living spirituality can do in this world.

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.

Continue to BE Uncomfortable

The Hansberry Project’s Panel of Black Women Playwrights. University of Washington.

In returning from a year-long academic sabbatical, one of the lessons I learned that I want to carry forward is the importance of being uncomfortable—of reaching outside my comfort zone to allow myself to be exposed to different people, ideas, and experiences. As a teacher, as a nurse, as a person, these are the sorts of things that help me to keep learning and growing.

I was reminded of this yesterday as I listened to an amazing panel of Black women playwrights discuss their work and lives at the Black Woman Wisdom Summit at the University of Washington. They spoke about their experiences with institutional racism, of having their plays labeled “not Black enough” or “too Black” by (mainly) white male critics. Of what we as White allies can do to fight against racism, to overcome the self-indulgent paralysis of White Guilt. As I listened to their stories, as well as the stories of young Black actresses and authors from the audience, I was simultaneously inspired, awed, and uncomfortable. These are uncomfortable conversations to have. These are uncomfortable times that require all of us to be willing to step out of our comfort zones, to be willing to listen to people whose lives are different from our own.

Here are my top ten lessons learned from my sabbatical (and yes, I do fully recognize my own privilege in having a sabbatical—thank you University of Washington):

  1. Continue to read widely and deeply.
  2. Commit to dedicated time each morning for writing (as I am doing now…)
  3. Contain email! Check email once in the morning and once at the end of the day.
  4. Disconnect from school/university politics: It Doesn’t Matter!
  5. More puppy time (note: by puppy I mean my geriatric sweet sweet corgi)
  6. Continue doing at least one week per year of solo retreat time on Orcas Island (note: we’re talking in a ramshackle cottage)
  7. Continue spending daily “fireside time” (a fake electric fireplace), or “hammock time” or Virginia Woolf’s “Wool-gathering time” daydreaming without any electronic devices in sight or hearing.
  8. Spend more time (daily) in nature.
  9. Spend more art/creative/ “way out” time.
  10. Engage in more outside the box thinking, reading, learning, such as in the Health Humanities (which I adore).

And here, below, I include my original post “BE Uncomfortable” from this time last year, pre-sabbatical. Pepe’s words ring so so true!

“BE uncomfortable. That’s how you learn!” was one of the final exhortations to our students by Pepe Sapolu Reweti at the conclusion of our”Empowering Healthy Communities”study abroad in New Zealand program this past summer. She was describing the fact that there are many Pakehas (‘white’/European descent New Zealanders) who do not personally know any Maori people, much less ever been on a Maori marae (‘meeting place’ similar to our U.S. Indian ‘reservation’ except that it is the ancestral home of the Maori iwi, or tribes), much much less ever have been in a Maori home. She pointed out that our students had all been on a marae (several, in fact) and had been inside a Maori community meeting house, and had shared ‘kai’ (a meal–several, in fact). That’s an honor and a privilege and something for us to learn from, to take back home–to apply in our own country, in our own daily lives. If the students learned nothing else from this study abroad experience, I hope they learned this.

I was reminded of Pepe’s words this past week as I listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates talk about his latest book Between the World and Me, written in the form of a letter to his son about being a black man in the deeply scarred and racist modern day America. His talk was in the sold-out 2,900 seat McCaw Hall at the Seattle Center, as part of the Seattle Arts and Lectures literary series. The interviewer asked Coates about his article “The Case for Reparations” in the June 2014 edition of The Atlantic, and why he thought it had ‘gone viral’ and been so popular among white people. He replied that he thinks people like the fact he doesn’t sugar-coat things, that “It’s a sign of respect the way I talk directly about things.” And he added, “Reality is uncomfortable. Period.”

Looking around the packed auditorium in one of the whitest cities in America, I wondered how many of us white audience members were now wallowing in white guilt: white guilt which is itself a white self-indulgent privilege. How many of us white Seattleite audience members are willing to push past white guilt to do anything constructive to confront racism in our country, in our city, in our neighborhood, in our own homes? And what are we as health care educators doing to ‘teach meaningfully to’ the effects of personally-mediated and institutionalized racism?

“…as Americans we are so heavily invested in shame, avoidance, and denial that most of us have never experienced authentic, face-to-face dialogue about race at all.” (“To Whom It May Concern” by Jess Row in The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Maxine King Cap, Fence Books 2015, p. 63.) In this same essay, Row states she once saw a book on classroom management for college teachers with the title When Race Breaks Out. “As if it’s like strep throat, as if it has to be medicated, managed, healed.” (p62.)

We need to allow ourselves–and our students–to be uncomfortable, to confront uncomfortable truths in order to learn any lessons that are worth learning.

On (Not) Letting Go

imageHaving read, and liked, Jonathan Kozol’s previous books Rachel and Her Children and Amazing Grace, I looked forward to reading his recent medical memoir The Theft of Memory: Losing My Father One Day at a Time (New York: Broadway Books, 2015).

While there were parts of the book that I appreciated, including Kozol’s candidness about the relative loneliness of his life and his reasons for wanting to extend his father’s life as long as possible even after Alzheimer’s disease had ravaged his father’s mind and body, overall the book was frustrating to read. It felt as if it had been written in a hurry and not edited carefully. For instance, there were frequent awkward and overly long (as in six to seven lines in length) sentences that detracted from the story. And I really did not care at all about the long sections of the book pertaining to Eugene O’Neill and his family and personal dramas. It felt more than unethical for Kozol to have mined his psychiatrist father’s notes pertaining to his patients, including O’Neill.

Kozol comes across in this book as an overly-privileged and entitled man who blames all of his father’s doctors for under and mis-treatment of his father’s health conditions. He does on occasion show some self-insight, as in this passage: “At some level, I think I was aware that selfish motivations of my own might very likely be at stake in the decisions I was making. …As nonresponsive as he often was, and physically enfeebled as he had becomes, I could not escape the crazy thought that I still needed him.” p. 151. That part of the book, a look inside the decision-making process for a family member such as Kozol who defies medical advice and staunchly fights for his father’s life to be medically extended as long as possible, made it a worthwhile read. That is a mindset that I do not understand, both as a medical provider and as a family member. Having read this book, I do have greater insight and compassion for people who hang on to their loved one’s lives far past what would appear to be prudent.

Notes to My Younger (Nurse) Self

Josephine Ensign/ foot care at Cross-Over Clinic, Fall 1986, from Freedom House brochure.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with a journalist for the career advice blog site, Glassdoor. The interview was published as “11 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became a Nurse” (by Eileen Hoenigman Meyer, August 31, 2016). Here are some of my favorite parts of this interview as interpreted and written by Meyer:

“I wish I knew how crazy the healthcare system is. I was young and idealistic. But maybe if I would have known I wouldn’t have chosen this path,” Dr. Ensign says, laughing.

While Dr. Ensign initially had “no intention of teaching,” she’s mostly impressed with her students who she refers to as “change agents.” She even found herself in a former student’s care during an unexpected trip to the ER, the ultimate test of trust for a medical educator and an experience she wrote about in her essay “Medical Maze.” Dr. Ensign expresses optimism about her students’ role in the future of medicine, but also concern for them in a challenging industry. She says, “In school students get a vision of utopia, but they don’t get enough support for how to deal with it when they run into barriers-how to stay true to themselves.”

Notes to my current (Nurse educator) self:

Continue to figure out ways to ‘teach fearlessly’ (upcoming blog post, stay tuned), to improve nursing education away from the production of “functional doers” towards the nurturing of “change agents.” (See previous blog post, “Undoing Nurses as Functional Doers” November 24, 2010.)