Home Is…

p1020046What is the meaning of home to you? What is the one essential ingredient of home? These are questions I pose to people in my workshops and talks on homelessness. I’ve adapted “The Meaning of Home” values clarification exercise that I learned from the (sadly, now defunct) Bay Area Homelessness Program, which was a dynamic collaborative of Bay Area universities and homeless-serving agencies. As they put it, the goal of this exercise is “to help participants understand the connection between home and humanity. It builds empathy for homeless people, shows the range of reasons why a person can become homeless, and shows the interconnectedness of human needs.” (Source: my copy of the exercise directions, dated September 1998).

Part of my adaptation of “The Meaning of Home” exercise is to give participants strips of colored paper (the size of a large bookmark), crayons, colored markers and pencils, and I ask them to write or draw (or both) their most essential ingredient—or essence—of home. And, if participants agree, I add their responses to a growing public art project I’ve named The Blue Tarp Tapestry. This is part of my ongoing digital humanities transmedia project, Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins, funded, in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities, Jack Straw Productions, and 4Culture. (A special thanks to all of these.)

I highlight some of the participant responses here and today because they are especially pertinent to the season, the climate of our country, and the sort of community that people in Seattle seem to desire: safe, diverse, compassionate. Their responses also highlight the fact that, unfortunately for too many people, home is not a safe and cozy place. The photo above is a weaving I made out of responses to “The Meaning of Home” exercise. The photos in the slideshow below are some of the responses from recent workshops.

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Endurance Test

fullsizerenderSafety pins are not enough—not even the giant safety pins I managed to dig out of my possessions this past week. For anyone working on social justice issues, the world has just become a much less safe, less just, less sane place. Even less so for anyone who is not a white, so-called Christian, “able-bodied,” “straight,” born in America male. Again, the wearing of silly safety pins is simply not enough. And wallowing in grief and sadness and depression is not going to help. Righteous indignation leading to considered action is what is needed.

That, and the appropriate attention to self-care. Not the banal bath-taking-day-at-the-spa sort of self-care, but the authentic self-care of trauma stewardship as taught by the amazing Seattle-area social worker, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. Her book and resource guide, Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009), is a permanent and oft-used part of my own resource library. I use it in my teaching. I dip back into its underlined, dog eared, sticky-noted treasure trove whenever I’m feeling the too-familiar crispy edges of professional burnout. Like now.

I highly recommend watching (and re-watching and sharing) her inspiring Tedex talk, “Beyond the Cliff,” from April 23, 2015. In it, she reminds us that in the midst of chaos, “one of the things in your ability is to bring your exquisite quality of presence to what you are doing, how you are being.” She reminds us of a whole host of inspiring people (including  Thich Nhat Hanh, Malala Yousafzai, Viktor Frankl, and Maya Angelou) and the fact that “when they could not change anything external, they were able to shift everything as a result of where they put their focus.” She ends her talk by encouraging us to take care of our own part of the web, and to focus on what makes us come truly alive and go do that.

And there is the recent Washington Post (November 12, 2016) article by Karen Attiah, “Self-care tips for those who are terrified of Trump’s presidency” in which she ends with a quote by Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

On Hope

Detail from mural “Sonoran Desert:Yaqui Home” by Mario Martinez

Today was absolutely the hardest day to teach out of all of my decades of teaching. I have a class of about 150 nursing students for a course on community/public health nursing. They are a very diverse group in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, country of origin, sexual orientation, gender, and even age. Today’s topics were cultural humility and the social determinants of health equity. How appropriate. One of my students also pointed out to me how helpful it was that I had also assigned a training module on disaster preparedness, which included PTSD prevention. She found the content helpful in terms of facing the outcome of our national presidential election. This made me remember the highly effective CDC Zombie Apocalypse disaster preparedness public education videos and materials. There is a zombie-like mindset within our healthcare system, within academic nursing, and within our society that I find highly disturbing. It would be so much easier to just yield to zombie ways.

I take diversity seriously in my teaching and strive to promote a class climate of respect for all differences, including different political views. But the profession of nursing as a whole, and especially of community/public health nursing, is built on the value of social justice and health equity. And higher education at a public university is based on inclusion and social justice. To now have a president-elect whose political platform included openly racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and beyond-misogynistic-into-sexual-assault-on-women values, takes us—takes me as a teacher—into an entirely new and uncharted territory.

Today in class I tried to acknowledge this in a transparent and respectful way—and to emphasize our responsibility to do our part to make the world, to make our country and our community a better and healthier place. We had terrific trainers from the NW Network of Bi, Trans, Lesbian, and Gay survivors of abuse who helped us address some of these issues directly. And a group of nursing students are continuing a Knitting for Change community group, an idea my UW Study Abroad in New Zealand students brought back with them last year. My co-teacher for that program was the community empowerment “Neighbor Power” expert Jim Diers. And then after class today I received notification of this recent mention I made in a Seattle-area community event of the New Zealand concept of community cafes as places to help strengthen our communities. “Experts offer ideas to help Seattle area’s homeless youth” by Neal Morton (Seattle Times, November 9, 2016).

I choose to hold on to all of these examples of the goodness and compassion in the world. I choose hope and a renewed energy to work for a socially just society.

Listen, Carefully

“Silence” by Johann Heinrich Fussli, 1799-1801

My essay, “Listen, Carefully,” was published today by Electric Literature/Okey-Panky. I love the Okey-Panky tagline, “Literary oddments for busy people.” They state that my essay (or is it really a prose poem?) is a 4-minute read. It includes a link to my 7-minute digital storytelling video of my reading of the piece, accompanied by my photographs.

“Listen, Carefully” is part of my book and digital humanities project, Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins. In “Listen, Carefully” I parse out some of my criticisms of the practice of narrative medicine, as well as the rhetoric of listening—and of silence.

On (Over) Exposure


Version 2A few weeks ago I was asked to participate in a University of Washington Health Sciences fall kick-off event focusing on homelessness and health. This is, of course, where I work, and I was being asked specifically because they chose my medical memoir,  Catching Homelessness, as the Health Sciences Common Book for Academic Year 2016/17. That is both an honor and a responsibility that I take seriously. So when they asked me to do a reading from my book for the event, I agreed. Then, the event organizer asked me to read a section of my book specific to the lived experience of homelessness. I decided to read a few passages from the pivotal chapter titled “Catching Homelessness,” about the time I had spiraled into a deep, dark depression that almost took my life. “Okay, sure, I can do this,” I thought to myself as I prepared for the talk.

It is one thing to write about some of one’s rawest, excruciating, and stigmatizing life events. It’s another thing to share that writing in a book that is published and read by people, including by many of my students and colleagues. But—as I discovered—it is altogether a thing in a different league to read passages about those events out loud in a crowded university auditorium.

I managed to make it through my reading without falling apart, but the next morning I wrote in my journal: “It went okay, but was a bit odd. Almost like I was some sort of display of homelessness trotted out for the students like a case study patient in medical Grand Rounds. It was really strange to just dive headfirst into the book—rip my chest open—read a few passages from when I was hitting bottom, lying on an old cot in a storage shed.”

It felt unkind to myself and unethical when I reflected on it later. Even though I tried to give my reading some semblance of a context, it ended up just feeling as if I had done a flashing freak show. Lesson learned: trust my instincts and my professional training as a writer and not be persuaded to read anything that emotionally raw.

But it also made me reflect on why as a society we seem to demand that sort of voyeuristic display. And it drew me back to a review of some of my favorite ethical guidelines on storytelling, such as these for digital storytelling on the Story Center website under “Ethical Practice in Digital Storytelling.”  And here is an excellent overview by Kelsen Caldwell (formerly in the University of Washington School of Medicine, Health Sciences Service Learning and Advocacy group) of ethical considerations of storytelling in health advocacy work with communities:  “The Ethics of Storytelling.”

I thought through some of these complex ethical and personal issues about the process of sharing my personal story of homelessness this past summer when I made my “Homeless Professor” digital storytelling video. It utilizes an excerpt/adaptation from Catching Homelessness  and is linked here. And here is one of my favorite DS videos about homelessness by Wayne Richard: “Sofas.” 


In addition to the DS videos linked above, here is a list of what I consider to be positive uses of narrative advocacy on health and homelessness—and yes, I am certainly biased in favor of the positive attributes of the first three:



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 1880s 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.