Category Archives: Empathy

Broken, now Free

I thought it might be difficult to not write. After nearly 600 posts since September 2014—and many streaks of every-other-day posts, I pledged to (mostly) take the summer off from writing.

And it’s been great.  I have no problem sleeping in instead of leaping out of bed at 5:30am to knock out 700 words.

But yesterday was a big milestone, something worth writing about.  The reason I ever started this blog in the first place—my son going to prison—is gone.  Yesterday, after spending half his time in prison and half on supervised release, my son’s sentence is over. Over!  He wrote a post about it on his own blog, if you’d like to read it.  I liked this line:

“I am free to roam about the country or world as I please. I am free to register to vote, and I will. I am free to drink alcohol, and I won’t. I am still not allowed to own a gun, and I don’t care.”

For me, the low point was the day I was ejected from Moose Lake prison without seeing Vince because I was wearing a “low-cut shirt.”  Then I went off to the Middle East for work, where I got to hear stories of people being tortured in prison.  When I came home, there was a letter waiting for me, informing me I was banned from stepping foot on any correctional facility property in Minnesota for six months.

Corrections employees have nearly complete discretion, and impunity, to do whatever they want.  And so they do whatever they want.

I feel like I am walking out into the sunlight after several years under a cloud. I transitioned the blog to writing mostly about travel a while back, but I’ll still write about prison once in a while because … there are still 10s of thousands of people in prisons. I don’t just care about my son; I care about my whole community, my state, my country.

Sigh, my poor country.  What a mess we are.  It’s like a nightmare where we are all living on the Jerry Springer Show.

I had never given a thought to prison, prisoners, or people whose loved ones are in prison.  Why would I?  Prisons are far away.  You can’t go inside them without permission. Only bad people are in them, so why would you want to go inside, anyway?  And if a single mom is on her own because her man is in prison, then she and her kids are probably better off, right?

Boy, has it been an eye opener. There are some bad people in prison, for sure.  But mostly they’re regular people who messed up.  Have you ever messed up?  Of course you have.  You just didn’t do something illegal, or you didn’t get caught.

I am grateful to my son for doing the hard work it took to change his life. He had been under arrest before.  He had been homeless.  I suspected he would die early due to liver failure or a car accident or a drug deal gone wrong.

Ironically, it was prison that set him free.  He always says he needed to go to prison. So for all my idealistic fellow campaigners on prison reform, keep that in mind when you propose repurposing prisons into artists’ retreats or organic garden centers.

I have made little progress planning for Australia, except to decide that I will limit myself to Australia and not attempt to also visit New Zealand, Fiji, Borneo, or Papua New Guinea.

Heidi and I spoke for over an hour yesterday on What’s App, and we agreed it’s crunch time.  Time to figure out how we’ll get from Sydney to Melbourne, time to book flights to Tasmania and maybe a train ride to Alice Springs.  Time to book accommodations in the Red Centre.   The pressure is on.

And yet it is summer, and it’s Sunday.  I think I’ll go sit in the garden and read the paper.

Work Life Sameness

I wrote a post with this same title three years ago, when I went to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories for work.  My Palestinian colleague and I met with dozens of activists who told us about the terrible prison conditions, torture taking place therein, and the oppressive regimes (both Israeli and Palestinian) under which they live.

Meanwhile, back in Minnesota, my son was in Moose Lake Prison, from which I had just been ejected because I was wearing a “low-cut blouse.”  This was the worst day of my life in the last three years.

All Omar knew about me was that I was a white, Jewish, middle-aged woman from Minnesota.

“My son is in prison,” I informed him at what seemed like an appropriate time.  I told him about being thrown out.  “I don’t think they know who they’re up against,” I said. “They’re not gonna know what hit them once I get back.”

It turned out to be the other way around. A letter from the Department of Corrections—basically a six-month restraining order—was waiting for me when I returned.  I tried to fight it but the DOC has complete discretion and hides behind the term “Security Issue.”

Yep, I was a big threat.

I think Omar realized I wasn’t some dilettante coming to “save” the Palestinians—what we refer to in the NGO world as just White Women With Scarves.

Part of touring Colombia with a company called Responsible Travel is that you get guides with deep knowledge of socioeconomic and political issues.

So on our first day, in Bogota, Lynn and I got an earful from our guide, Michael Steven Sánchez Navas.  Often I will use pseudonyms for people to protect their privacy, but in Michael’s case I am intentionally using his real name in hopes that transparency with protect him.  Lynn and I have both friended him on Facebook, and it appears he does the same with every tourist he encounters.  Maybe many global sets of eyes on him will put a check on anyone who doesn’t like what he has to say.

More about this later, but for now I’ll just say that this vacation seems like it happened a year ago because I came back to work to find we’ve got three proposals for Iraq due within a month.  Another organization is the lead on all of them, which is great, but it’ll still be a ton of work.  It’s good thing.  But it’s all Iraq, all the time, and all I read and hear about is prisons, torture, rape, and war.

But first, let me back up to something less depressing, the Casa Deco hotel.  As the name implies, it’s a deco-era hotel located in the Candelaria neighborhood of Bogota.  It’s got a lovely lobby with no elevator, but a helpful employee hiked our cases up to the second floor.  It was Lynn’s turn to do a small double take—since in her hemisphere the second floor is the first floor.

I have most of these plants at home, but they are at most 12 inches, not 12 feet, tall.

“The owner is Italian,” said the guy lugging our luggage.  This was by way of explaining why the hotel was full of reproductions of work by Gustav Klimt.  Klimt was Austrian, so this wasn’t really an explanation, but we were tired so we didn’t press.

There was one bed.  The hotel guy quickly folded down and made up the couch, which turned out to be a hide-a-“bed.”  I claimed it, seizing my chance to make up for the times Lynn has sacrificed by taking the bad bed.

I had double checked with our tour agent that there would be two beds.

“Lynn and I are good friends,” I had written, “but not that good.”

Besides, the thrashing around I do to relieve my restless legs would drive Lynn (or anyone) crazy.

And it was bad.  Hard as concrete on one side, lumpy with a big dip on the other.

But so what?  You can get by with little sleep for a couple nights.

The art above the bed was more likely to give me nightmares, if I looked too closely.

Over the Hills

One of my proposals was due in two days and things had gone seriously off piste. It may be that, because we are essentially a mental health organization, we have a way of working that is consultative in the extreme.  When people edit drafts of proposals they never comment, “This number should be 50.”  Instead they write, “I sort of think this number could be 50, but what does everyone else think?”  And then everyone piles on and adds comments until all the edits look like the Babylonian Talmud.

I often suggest that people jump on Skype and talk to each other and make decisions, but with time differences and poor internet and … well … Skype—the program we love to hate—that’s challenging.

A colleague had offered to incorporate everyone’s comments into the proposal.  I just had to give it a once-over to cut down the length and make sure it was clear and responded to the donor’s intent and requirements.  I was free to go with Lynn on an excursion the next day.

The next day.  An email from my colleague to the whole group, “I’m sick and there’s no way I can do these edits. I’m sorry!  I’m signing off now.”

Shit.  It was on me now.

“Will there be internet at the venue?” I asked Lynn.  She didn’t know; Richard Googled it and the website didn’t say anything about internet.

“But it’s an event venue,” Lynn reasoned.  “It has to have internet.”

“Agreed.  It has to have internet.”

Lynn is on the board of Grampian Women’s Aid, one member of a consortium of Scottish domestic abuse organizations.  The event was a celebration marking their 40 years of providing refuge for survivors and advocating for stronger laws to protect women and children.

It took us an hour to get to there.  Richard had hand-drawn a map for us; I held it and nervously called out the turns.  “Left before this bridge!”  “Right after the abandoned pub!”  We only got slightly lost once, which is amazing for Lynn and me.  Why didn’t we use a GPS?  I don’t recall, but we passed through one of the most wild, empty areas of Scotland.  An old-school GPS wouldn’t have known about the washed-out bridge; a smart phone-based app needs 3G, which was iffy in some areas.

I’m looking at a map of Aberdenshire now, trying to figure out where we were. I love the names but none of them sound familiar: Haugh of Glass.  Glenkindie Towie. Bellabeg Strathdon. Longmorn Fogwatt. We may have been in Cairngorns National Park.  I don’t know.

We passed this creepy gate.  I hope it was a joke.

I can’t recall the name of the venue, but it was lovely.  We met some of the other board members in the café to have lunch before the event, which was redundant because there was so much great food at the event.  More great food!  Here is my lunch.  A fresh fish fest!  I forgot all about my proposal.

But after lunch reality hit and while Lynn and her fellow volunteers were setting up, I tried to get an internet connection.  This was complicated by the fact that my laptop battery has been dead for five years so it has to be plugged in.  I walked around with it and finally got an off-on connection and an electric outlet in a back room.

People think everybody, everywhere, is online.  Well everybody isn’t, and doesn’t.  People in Ethiopia.  People in rural Scotland.  People in Nebraska.  Poor people.  Elderly people.  Me.

But I managed to just focus’til I got ‘er done then got enough of a connection to send it off.

The event was very moving.  About 100 women and men were in attendance, including one of the local lords and a woman politician.  This is artwork by children in refuge.

The most memorable speaker was a woman who had been involved from the start.

The food was fantastic and provided gratis by the caterer.

I felt grateful.  A former battered woman myself, I was now eating strawberry and cream tarts in Scotland to celebrate 40 years of aid to battered women.  There is so much good work being done in this world by so many.

Poetry in Motion

Two days after the party, Michael and Gwen left for Rye on the train and Lynn flew down to Oxford for a day.

I made a last push to get my two proposals submitted, hit a road block, then turned my attention to the attic project.  I would leave in a little over a week and I hadn’t even started painting yet.

“I want your approval to recycle and throw some things out,” I said to Richard.  “I can’t paint if I can’t reach the walls.  Since Lynn is gone ….”

He was all for it, so we began carrying bags and boxes of old magazines and books and empty plastic bags and broken coat hangers and the posters from the wind turbine campaign down to the bins.

There were multiples of some books, including a collection of stories and poems by refugees. I seemed to remember that Christina, their Congolese foster daughter, had contributed to some such book.  They went into the recycling bin.

Richard carried down a dozen suitcases and valises and garment bags and overnight bags and added them to a pile for the charity shop.  Who uses garment bags anymore?  Well, maybe for storage.  Maybe someone would buy these garment bags at the charity shop and use them to store stuff in their attic.

I was painting in the attic the following afternoon when I heard Lynn come home.  I worried that she would inspect what we had tossed, but didn’t hear any protesting downstairs.

I came down a little while later to find the poetry books on a bench outside the kitchen. My stomach turned.  Richard exited the kitchen, head down, and headed upstairs without making eye contact.

Lynn was in the kitchen, chopping something with a large knife.  She didn’t look up when I entered.

“The…uh…uh…books,” I stammered.

Lynn set down the knife and looked at me.  “I’m not angry….” She started.  She was disappointed, which felt much worse.  “Chrissie contributed a poem to that collection.  It was part of her program of adjustment.”

I, of all people, should have known better.  I, who work for an organization that helps asylum seekers recover from trauma .

“I…I assumed she kept a copy,” I said lamely.

“Yes, well we don’t know that,” Lynn said.  “She’s moved from to Belgium with two children and who knows what she was able to take with her.”

“You’re right, you’re right.  I am really sorry.  I feel like an idiot—I guess I was focused on my goal and in my zeal to Get it Done I just didn’t think.”

I carried the books back up to the attic and stayed there, painting, until dinner.  The three of us were a bit quiet that evening, but by the next day things felt okay.

“I won’t be removing anything more from the attic,” I murmured to Richard when I caught him alone in the hall. He nodded in agreement.

It was a warm, sunny day so Richard set lawn chairs out in the garden after lunch and the three of us read and drank wine.

Richard fell asleep first.

“This is unbelievable,” Lynn remarked, “There’s an article here about an 18-year-old girl who has 27 million followers on Twitter, and if she says something about a product, they are suddenly swamped with orders!”

I was working my way through the latest issue of Private Eye, which is like Mad Magazine only strictly for adults and with British humor and inside jokes that I often don’t get.

“Ugh,” I responded lethargically.  “I’ve been writing blog posts of—what I consider good-quality writing for years, and I only have a couple hundred followers.”

“You should write about fashion,” Lynn suggested.

“Right.  Have you seen what I’m wearing?”  I had been rotating the same four outfits for three months.

“You could try to get her to Tweet something about your organization.  You’d get millions in donations overnight.”

“I doubt torture is her thing.”

But Lynn was asleep, and soon I was too, plus a dog or two.  It had been a busy week and guilt is exhausting.

Flights and Boats and Ships

As my month in Eton and Windsor drew to a close I stepped up my sightseeing.  If you’re a traveler, you know that tension between, “I want to see it all; I may never be here again!” and “I want to savor and enjoy my moments here; I may never be here again.”  This was a time for the former.

My friend Julie had never been to England, hadn’t traveled internationally in years, and that had mostly been on tours.  I figured she’d be nervous arriving at Heathrow—jet lagged, disoriented, tired, and excited—I always am.

So I met her there, in the “Love Actually” arrivals hall.

Ingrid had met me at Schiphol in May.  Maki had met me in Addis Ababa in June.  Lynn was there when I arrived at Heathrow from Ethiopia. It’s nice to see a familiar face at the airport.  I don’t mind traveling alone, for the most part, but it feels a little sad to arrive and have no one waving to greet me.

Julie’s flight was delayed so I watched people arriving—scanning the waiting crowd for a familiar face, then lighting up with a smile when they spotted their spouse or friend or business associate—waving, then shaking hands or kissing and hugging.  It was an endorphin boost, just watching.

Julie’s arrival gave me a push to re-see some old favorites.  We spent a day at the Tower of London.  I hadn’t been there for 30 years.  Based on binge watching The Tudors and reading Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, I knew just enough to probably misinform Julie so she would possibly be laughed at if she quoted me.

Afterwards, we did one of my favorite London activities, the boat ride to Greenwich.  It’s a cheap way to see the city from the river; we left from Tower Hill but you can start at Westminster or even further beyond for all I know.  It had been raining all day so the thought of sitting inside under a clear Plexiglas canopy appealed.  It only costs £10 for the round trip, and there are so many boats plying the Thames that it’s not necessary to book in advance for a specific time.

We waited in line with a couple Tajikistan who were honeymooning.  They had flown in via Moscow that day.  They were spending two days in London, taking a day trip to Oxford, then flying to Edinburgh for two days, from whence they would work their way back home via Paris and Prague.  Good thing they were young and had lots of stamina.

It takes less than an hour to get to Greenwich.  We passed under bridge after bridge and stopped at multiple piers on either side to let people board or disembark.  I always look forward to gliding under Tower Bridge, splendid even in the rain.

There’s a lot to see in Greenwich, but I always tack my visit onto the end of a day so everything is closed when I arrive.

There is the Cutty Sark, which is not just a brand of whisky.  The original 147-year-old ship can be toured but I’ve never done so.  It’s the last surviving clipper ship in the world.

Greenwich is home to the Royal Observatory, home of Greenwich Mean Time, or GMT, still used as the standard time zone reference.  If you have ever planned a trip somewhere outside of your own time zone, you have likely seen “GMT + 4” or whatever to indicate the local time.

There is also the Royal Naval Museum which I’m sure is fascinating but which I’ve never seen, and a wonderful covered market which is always just closing down when I arrive.

Note to self: Plan a day in Greenwich next time.

On the return boat ride we got distracted by a drunk guy who wanted us to guess his nationality, which turned out to be Polish.  This may have triggered a few stereotypes in me.

We missed our stop and got off at the next one.  The Pole got off and followed us. It was deserted and dark.  I was debating whether to scream when he came abreast of us, gave us directions to the nearest tube station, and stumbled away.

Deserving Immigrants

The next day I would go to Oxford for some meetings with Oxfam people and to hang out with Lynn and Possum.

I had to leave the house early but first I let in the cleaners into the flat.

People in the States have asked me what Brits thought about Donald Trump.  Typically, I would meet a new person and he or she would make small talk while looking down at the ground, then after 10 minutes broach The Topic.

“Sooo … what do you think of your new president?” They weren’t sure where I stood, so they posed an open-ended question.

When I expressed my opinion, they invariably let out a sigh of relief that I wasn’t one of “those Americans” who think he’s Terrific, and they would launch into a screed about him, usually looping in the themes of Brexit and nationalism.

“We think he’s a complete tosser!” was a typical comment.  Tosser, wanker, arsehole, mad as a bag of ferrets.  Just a few of the British endearments I heard about our president, not to mention the universal terms racist, sexist, nationalist, moron, jerk, sociopath, and narcissist.

Granted, I tend to hang out with very liberal people, but I went to a few parties where I wasn’t sure what was coming.  It was always the same.

So when the Polish couple who cleaned the flat once a month stated that they love America, I expected the same.  They were immigrants, after all.  Fortunately they didn’t ask my opinion first.

“And we love your President Donald Trump!” the husband exclaimed as the wife nodded heartily.  The husband waxed enthusiastic.  “He is strong man!  In Europe, we understand about the Muslims.  You Americans need a strong man to keep them out!”

There was a lot going through my head at that moment.  Normally I’m a fighter and I would have challenged them.  But here I was, alone in Eton.  No one knew I was here aside from Sam and my people back home. This guy was about 6’ 2” and burly, with blonde hair and blue eyes—an ideal Aryan.  He was yelling—not angrily but animatedly—and waving the five-foot-long wand of the Hoover around in the air.  This was not the time to mention I was a Jew, and how I empathized with Muslims and hated all of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.

The wife stepped forward, excited to share her opinions.  “We live in UK 11 years.  We go home to Poland every year, town near German border, and see what the Muslims do.  They change the country.  They make crimes, they are dirty.  They rape German women!  No, no, we stay here.  We have two kids; the boy he 13, the girl she 11.  They English!  We want keep refugees out of England.”

Wow.  I couldn’t even begin to know how to tango with the illogic of her statement.  During the election, I had heard a Vietnamese immigrant to the US on National Public Radio lauding Donald Trump and stating she would vote for him.  I had figured she was an outlier.

But now I wondered.  Is it a thing?  “I made it to safety/prosperity so screw all of you in line behind me.”  Or did a Vietnamese immigrant really see herself as completely virtuous and deserving of being taken in, while no Muslim was?  It boggled the mind.

I couldn’t resist asking, “What will happen to you with Brexit?”

They beamed.  “We love Brexit!  Brexit will keep new immigrants out.  There are enough immigrants here now.”

I really wanted to ask if they were aware that many Brits think Poles are pond scum.  Google “British views of Poles” and 18 million results come up.  I thought one chat room comment summed it up well:

“Poles are the second-largest overseas-born community in the UK after Indians. This isn’t new (Polish Jews came in 19th century) but much of it has to do with Poland joining the EU in 2004 making migration easier.  So I’d imagine anti-Polish sentiment being the British equivalent of American dislike for Mexicans.”

But instead of diving into this conversation, I grabbed my bag, waved good-bye, and exited to catch the train to Oxford.

Lady Day

Lynn, Richard, Possum, and I made our way into the Wyndham, got some drinks, then headed into the auditorium.

The show was Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.  The premise is that Billie Holliday, the American jazz icon, is performing at a run-down bar in Philadelphia right before she dies, age 44, in 1959.  It’s a two-hour monologue and song book, accompanied by a man who plays the piano, tries to stop her from shooting up, then procures heroin for her.

I don’t go to a lot of live theatre.  It always feels to me like people are talking in a stilted way: “Look at me—I’m acting!”  I was leery about going to any American show in Britain.  On my first trip to England, my cohort of volunteers—who were from all over Europe and Asia—insisted on going to a west end musical involving a loud-mouthed Texan in a big hat.  There was also lots of waving and shooting of guns.  I squirmed through the whole thing.  The group members loved it and laughed all night about “typical Americans.”

Lady Day would be performed by Audra McDonald, with actual audience members on stage as though they were customers at the bar.  This was a bit strange, since McDonald and the musicians were dressed in period costumes, while the customers/audience members were dressed in contemporary clothes.

We were seated at a café table right below the stage.

I loved Billie Holliday as much as anyone; I had listened to her songs over and over, especially in my angst-ridden 30s, but would I be able to sit through two hours of angst?  And my chair was wobbly!

Then McDonald began her performance, and within moments all distractions melted away and I was riveted.  I knew Billie Holliday’s story—raped as a child, raised by a single mother, addicted to drugs and alcohol, did prison time, full of regret over not having children and a string of abusive relationships.

McDonald’s voice was well up to the task of Holliday’s songs; when the first strains of “Strange Fruit” began I teared up instantly.

Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

 

Pastoral scene of the gallant south

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

 

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

So the show was about Holliday’s life, but also about racism in America, and the lot of being a famous woman performer, and love, and addiction. Believe it or not she was also very funny.  I wanted to run up onto the stage and hug McDonald/Holliday, tell her everything was going to be alright and that I would take her home and take care of her.

I didn’t find myself feeling defensive about the theme of racism.  In fact, just the opposite.  Racism is a reality in America and always has been.  It’s something we’ve had to struggle with, collectively.  We’ll probably never see the end of it.  I’d like to think that as older generations die off, younger ones will be less racist, but the crowds in Charlottesville at the white supremacist rally last year were mainly young men.

So why would I feel proud of my country?  Because at least half of us are fighting this shit. At least half of us are fighting back–marching, writing essays, lobbying our elected officials in opposition to racism and other “isms.”

The performance ended; we looked at each other and I spoke first, “I feel like a wrung out rag!”

“That was intense,” said Richard.

“I’m exhausted!” said Lynn,

Added Possum, “I never knew!”

We went back to the hotel, ordered some wine, and talked for hours about racism in our respective countries.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill was made into a TV show; if you want to watch it it’s here.

Have a box of Kleenex handy.