Continue to BE Uncomfortable

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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

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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’ (next 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.) 

Past Forgiveness: Part II

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The following is an excerpt from my book manuscript titled Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins (under review). I’m sharing it here—and now—because I know of at least one young woman and several older women out there in the world who probably need to hear these words. (“Past Forgiveness: Part I” was posted on August 3, 2016 and linked here.)

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I have spent my entire life—or at least my entire life from when I first became fully aware of myself—trying to find a way to forgive my dysfunctional family. Mainly my father, the charismatic narcissist minister who liked to grope my budding breasts and then pretend he had only been trying to show me fatherly affection. Or, that he was only sponging my chest when I was ill in bed with a high fever from Red Measles when I was fourteen. “What kind of Freudian psychological hang-ups do you have about your father?” he asked, when I grew old enough to confront him on his groping behavior. As if.

And my mother, my strikingly artistically gifted and intelligent mother who preferred to live in a surrealistic, made-up world of her own, trying to be my friend instead of my mother. She chose to believe my father and not me. As if. She told me that my panic attacks, which developed in the immediate aftermath of my father’s first groping episode, were really sent by God as a dark night of the soul, and meant I just needed to pray harder. As if.

And even my three older siblings, and especially my oldest sister who had been like a second mother to me, who believed my father even after his death as he partially disinherited me. My siblings who continue to admonish me to get over my anger, to forgive and forget, to leave it all in the past. As if.

As if anger is a bad thing. As if anger isn’t protective, propelling, and proper in unjust situations.

As if I was right all along: I had been adopted. I firmly believed this as a child. I was born long after my siblings. My two childhood best friends were both adopted and their parents didn’t tell them this fact until they were older. I held a deep conviction that I was not of this family.

As if I was right all along: in order to survive, to heal, to thrive, I needed to sever ties, become un-homed, move far away to the Western frontier of Wallace Stegner’s “native home of hope” and make my own way, my own family, my own home. What does it mean to be homeless when home was never a safe place? In such cases, it is not possible for young people to runaway from home; they can only run towards home.

As if family secrets were legitimate heirlooms to pass down to future generations, squirreled away in cedar chests along with crocheted bedspreads and starched baby clothes.

My father never acknowledged his wrongdoing, never confessed his sins of groping me, of groping my maternal aunt when she was young, of groping at least one of his granddaughters. How can I begin to forgive him?

As if.

I spent many years of my adult life swinging wildly between minimizing the trauma, “it could have been worse,” to full-body catastrophizing, drowning in the role of victim, “I am scarred and damaged beyond repair,” before realizing that is how our psyches cope with such trauma, and that the window of opportunity—of strength and hope and healing—lies in the space between those two extremes. It requires embracing the white-hot contradiction of the two truths. As if that were possible.

Until it is possible. Through a combination of fatigue, fortitude, and sheer inexplicable grace, it becomes possible.

Why We Need the Homeless

IMG_8941As Phillip Lopate points out, perverse humor and contrariness can help us break through our ingrained ways of thinking, can help us view emotionally charged problems in our world through a more constructive lens. With that in mind, here’s why we need homelessness, why we shouldn’t be trying to end or reduce homelessness at all, but rather encouraging it.

Homelessness is good for individuals because it provides an education in life not available by other means. If you’re young and homeless and have a sense of adventure, you can travel around the country in a Jack Kerouac sort of way, get to see more cities and small towns and different ways of living than you’d ever be able to do if you were not homeless and if you were working full-time to try and stay not homeless. We should encourage homelessness in our young people, as it would increase their civic and geographic literacy and help us avoid the high cost of a college education.

Homelessness is good for our society. First, it is good for the environment because people who are homeless often recycle things. They find discarded aluminum cans and plastic bottles in ditches beside streets and turn them in to recycling places in exchange for money. Homelessness is good for the environment because people who are homeless often leave very small carbon footprints: they usually don’t own cars, or if they do, they can’t afford the gas to drive them so they rely on public transportation, ride bicycles or skateboards (if they are young), or simply walk to where they need to go. They eat leftover food that would otherwise go to waste and have to be carted off in garbage trucks and take up space in land fills. This especially applies to all of those excess Starbucks pastries that have to be thrown away at the end of each day. Homeless people don’t use much electricity, especially if they live outside, and even if they stay in public or church-run shelters, the cost per person of heating or cooling the shelter area is quite cost-effective.

Homelessness is good for the economy because our US market economy is based on winners and losers, the wealthy and the poor: having people who are homeless on our streets—so visibly down and out and poor—reminds us that our economy is working. It reminds us on a personal level that we had better keep working or we will end up like them: homeless. It’s a good moral lesson for our children when they are lazy at school. We can point out a homeless person and say: “See—that’s what you’ll become if you don’t study harder!” Homelessness is good for the economy because, like migrant farm workers, many homeless people do day labor, such as construction or yard work, for very low wages. This enables businesses to turn a higher profit.

Homelessness creates jobs for people, especially jobs in public health and social work, as well as jobs for journalists and researchers who focus on homelessness. Homelessness and poverty support health care providers, teachers, social workers, and other professionals who are incompetent or impaired, and who wouldn’t be tolerated in care settings for affluent persons. People who are homeless—along with other poor people—help support medical innovation, since many of them serve as patients and research subjects in academic medical centers. Of course, these medical innovations mainly benefit affluent people who can afford health insurance to cover the cost of such innovations.

Please support homelessness. Our country needs more of it.

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From my medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 2016).

Note: For this piece I was influenced by Herbert Gans’s article “The Positive Functions of Poverty” in The American Journal of Sociology (Vol. 78, No. 2, September 1972) and by Joel John Robert’s article “Ten Things We Can Do to Perpetuate Homelessness,” published in the Los Angeles Times (July 19, 2003).

Evicted

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“In languages all over the world, the word for ‘home’ encompasses not just shelter but warmth, safety, family—the womb.” ~Matthew Desmond

Part of my Summer Social Justice Reading Challenge included reading Matthew Desmond’s powerful nonfiction book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (New York: Crown Publishers, 2016). Although I finished reading the book a month or so ago, I’ve been letting my thoughts about it percolate before writing a review.

First, it is a formidable book, with the hardcover edition being 341 pages with an additional 62 pages for a detailed “Notes” section. Since the author is a Harvard University professor and Evicted is based on his PhD dissertation research, the scholarly weightiness of the book is not surprising. As Desmond points out, there has been a dearth of research on the practice, policies, and consequences of eviction on individuals, families, and groups in the United States. Through his research and policy work, he seeks to address this issue. He has established the Just Shelter website to highlight additional stories of evictions around the country and to direct people to ways of helping at the local and national levels. For that I admire him.

In an effort to tell the stories of people he studied and lived amongst (in order to study them), Desmond uses a third-person detached narrative approach similar to the one used by Katherine Boo in Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (New York: Random House, 2012). In the “Notes” section he acknowledges that he declined to write in the more current first-person ethnographic narration, a “…postmodern turn in anthropology, which focused attention on the politics and biases of the author.” He goes on to invoke “classic” policy-relevant ethnographic books, such as Elliott Liebow’s Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men (New York: Little, Brown &Company, 1967), in which he claims the authors “are hardly on the page.” (p. 405) This is a strange statement, since Tally’s Corner is written in first-person, despite it also being written from Liebow’s dissertation. 

Evicted reads more like a novel (Sinclair’s The Jungle comes to mind) than a heavy-duty social policy book. But as a reader, I was distracted by the frequent use of derogatory descriptors of people (moon-faced, redneck, etc.) and the fact that I could easily tell the places in the story where the not so behind the scenes author would play the role of the Great White (male) hope and bail people out of difficult spots. In the “Epilogue,” Desmond acknowledges both of these issues, but not in particularly convincing or reassuring ways. For instance, he mentions that people sometimes call him on the fact that he includes not so savory details about “poor people” and he replies that it doesn’t help anyone to try to gloss over realities—and that the tendency of kind-hearted liberals to portray poor people as saints is belittling and disrespectful. I agree, but there’s no need to describe people in a pejorative way.

The strongest part of Evicted comes in the “Epilogue: Home and Hope.” It is here that Desmond does an excellent job of highlighting the negative health effects of eviction on people, including the higher rates of depression and suicide among recently evicted people. And he has these things to say about the role of home for all of us: “The home is the center of life. It is a refuge from the grind of work, the pressure of school, and the menace of the streets.(…) The home is the wellspring of personhood. It is where our identity takes root and blossoms (…) When we try to understand ourselves, we often begin by considering the kind of home in which we were raised. (…) America is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family, and your community. But this is only possible if you have a stable home. ” (pp. 293-4) Yes, housing is health care and yes, everyone deserves a safe and stable home.

My Homeless Shadow

IMG_1542“Most of us live homeless, in the neighborhood of our true selves.”
—Rachel Naomi Remen

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A few years ago, while working with Public Health– Seattle & King County on a medical respite project for homeless youth, my own homeless shadow resurfaced. I was in downtown Seattle at the YWCA women’s shelter, waiting inside the front lobby for the rest of our group to arrive. We were scheduled to have a tour of the facility to see how they ran their medical respite program. I’d taken the city bus and had purposefully dressed down in jeans, a sweater, and a raincoat. It was late afternoon, raining out- side, and I saw soliciting, pimping, prostituting, and drug dealing happening on the sidewalk in front of the shelter. The members of my medical respite group were buzzed in the front door. At the same time, a homeless woman resident walked up to me and asked, “Did you stay at a hotel last night on Aurora instead of here again?” Aurora Avenue is one of Seattle’s main prostitution areas. I looked up at her in alarm. “I’m sorry. You must have me mixed up with someone else. I’m not staying here, I’m just visiting.”

The people in my group overheard this interchange. Later, they teased me about it, saying how preposterous it was. I was a university professor, for God’s sake! There was no way I could be homeless, much less a homeless prostitute. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that my cover had been blown, that I’d been found out, that my homeless shadow was showing. You were homeless—why? What was wrong with you? Those are the questions people ask me—or want to ask me—whenever they discover I was homeless. Coming out of the closet about my own homelessness was never an option for me. It could derail my career, hurt my family, and marginalize me even more. It was largely why I had moved across the country to Seattle, to escape the memories of having been homeless in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. But standing there in the YWCA shelter, I recognized the irony—and the hypocrisy—embedded in my reaction to the woman’s question. Here I was an outspoken advocate for people who were homeless, while secretly judging them, and by extension, judging myself.

Homelessness is exhausting and soul sucking. Homelessness has marked me. Like the star-shaped surgery scars on my belly, the body harbors secrets. Homelessness is a type of deep illness, a term coined by sociologist Arthur Frank for an illness that leaves you feeling dislocated, an illness that casts a shadow over your life. That shadow never completely goes away. At some point it was time to acknowledge my homeless shadow, time to remember.

Note: This is an excerpt from my recently published medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: SheWrites Press, August 9, 2016).