Category Archives: Empathy

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.

Taking Care

I missed a writing day because I invited a dozen friends over for a “Caring for the Caregivers” brunch. It’s not like I don’t have enough to do, what with work and blogging and care giving for my mother.  But for the past couple of years I’ve heard story after story from friends, relatives, and coworkers of how they are caring for their parents, partners, kids, or siblings.  Or all of those.

There’s the friend whose in-laws have been dying, in India, where if you don’t have someone at the patient’s bedside 24/7 to feed and bath and otherwise tend to them, they will be discharged.  So my friend and her husband and his sister and her husband are taking turns flying to India—to a city that is not easy to get to—and sitting vigil by the bedside as the father died, and now as the mother dies.  This is not cheap or easy.

There is the friend whose mother took her life savings—literally bags of cash—to a car dealership. Reports of an 80-year-old woman weaving down the street in a shiny new $90,000 Acura to the food shelf to get her commodities got back to my friend.  Her mother was diagnosed with dementia.  The car went back to the dealership and the mother entered a memory care unit, where she is happily making new friends.  But none of that happened easily, or overnight.

There was the friend whose mother collected things.  Anything.  Everything.  Beanie babies, empty coffee cans, popsicle sticks, travel sized toiletries, balls of yarn, cans of tuna, artificial Christmas trees, washcloths.  Her mother died, and I went with her out to the tiny farm town to clean out the house.  Actually, a dumpster had to be filled before any cleaning could take place.  When I took down the lace curtains in the bedroom, clouds of dust enveloped my head and the curtains practically disintegrated.  The most interesting thing we found was an old Playboy magazine under the shelf paper in her mother’s dresser drawer.

Please, don’t collect things.

Then there is my friend who had to cancel her trip to England.  She wound up having a 12-hour surgery to fuse her spine.  Her partner cared for her, and then she cared for him when he donated a kidney to save her cousin’s life. A kidney!  He and the cousin are both doing well.

It’s not that people are constantly complaining.  But the strain is evident in the stories, even when they’re told dispassionately.  So I felt a desire to gather people to share some stories and maybe some laughs.

It’s not exclusively women who are caregivers.  I am proud that my son has stepped up to care for his grandparents in a big way.  If I had included care giving men in my invitation, I would have had to rent a room in a restaurant to fit everyone.

I keep thinking back to a day, three years ago.  I took a day off of work and left the house at 8am.  I drove to a far southern suburb to a medical supply store and picked up a walker (Zimmer Frame) for my mother.  She had been in two car accidents which caused hairline fractures in her spine and hips.  I drove to her house, in a northern suburb, where I adjusted the walker for her, then did a few loads of wash. I then drove to St. Cloud, a city two hours away, and visited my son in prison.  After my one-hour visit, I drove back to an eastern suburb to my sister’s house.  She was on chemo and I think I folded kids’ socks for an hour and did some other chores.  Then I drove to my brother’s house in another suburb and watched his kids for a few hours.

I got home around 8pm. I was exhausted but the day had also made me realize what I was really made of.

Then I did some variation of this every week for the next two years.  Now everyone is doing well, and I just want to feed people who are in the same boat.

I’m also beginning to plan my next escape ….

A Good Sport

Lest you conclude from my last post that I hate men and think they’re all groping, drooling, creepers, that’s not the case.  In fact I joined a dating website recently.  I’m not optimistic about my prospects.  I will let you guess which of the photos below are from the ads for the company, and which are actual personal ads once you join the site.

Now, you know me—I’m not one to judge.  But 85% of the men on this site are looking for a woman to share their interests, which are hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, and watching sports.  So they’re not really looking for the 85% of us women who have no interest in those things.  They’re looking for a buddy.

I don’t expect a man to go thrift store shopping with me.  In fact I wouldn’t be caught dead with a dude who would shop where I shop.  But if I can put myself in men’s shoes and know—in general—what they would and wouldn’t be interested in, why can’t they?

And here’s a tip: Don’t use a handle like “qualudes57” or “weirdo2u” or “chestypuller.”  What the hell? 

Looking for a nice backdrop for your personal ad photo?  Why not use a $1.99 plastic shower curtain from Walmart?

It’s nice to know there is someone out there who takes worse photos than I do.

This website is called Our Time.  It should be called Ouch Time.

But I tried. You never know.

The weekend after my day trip into London, I met up with my friend Heidi.  Heidi is Australian and has lived in London for over 15 years.  She teaches Under 5s, which we in the US would call preschoolers.  She’s also a never-married female, although she’s 15 years younger than me so she may still stand a chance.  We met on the way to Greece, where we went with another Australian woman and Sam back when I lived in the UK.  Since then, she and I have met up in France and Berlin and she visited me in Minnesota.

Heidi had to return home to help her parents out, but she was in the UK to take care of some business with her flat and her job and just enjoy the English summer.

She messaged me to ask if I wanted to go to Wimbledon.  “Uh, no,” I replied, “I’m not a sport person.”

“But it’s the scene, Annie!” she messaged back.  I’m so glad I gave it a go.

Heidi and I met at Putney station, from whence we took a bus, then walked to the venue.  We were handed a queue card with lots of instructions front and back, most importantly, “Queue jumping is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.”

The alcohol limits were “one bottle of wine or Champagne (750ml) or two cans of beer (500ml) or two cans of premixed aperitifs per person. Bottles of spirits or fortified wines will not be allowed into the Grounds.”

These limits were per person, and there was alcohol for sale on site.

It was a rainy Thursday afternoon so there was no queue, which Heidi seemed a bit disappointed about.  Apparently that can be a scene of its own.  The Centre Court tickets were £58.  We bought the £20 lawn tickets.

The rain held off so we were able to watch the youngest and oldest players in exhibition matches, which were fun.  The two “oldies” were Aussies nicknamed The Woodies.  They kept up an amusing banter which kept the crowd laughing while they played.

I was fascinated by the officials’ uniforms and stances.

We walked up to a high lawn where in theory you could watch the super star players on a big screen.  People queued up politely to look over a hedge at the screen.

We spread an oil cloth and plunked down on the ground to drink talk.  We never saw the big match, but we had a nice view of London in the distance and the people watching was good.

There were men in pale yellow suits and hats and women wearing flowery dresses, so I fit right in.

It was a fun day with my buddy Heidi. I guess I do watch sports!  But I draw the line at hunting.

 

 

Penultimate Day in Ethi

My penultimate day in Ethiopia.  There, I’ve always wanted to use that word.

Today I would be observing a training and a women’s group.  But first, I settled up my canteen bill, handed in the Chinese dongle that had never helped me get an Internet connection, and returned the ancient Nokia I had been given the first day.  For once, my age was an advantage with technology, since I had learned to text using the ABC system way back in 2005.  Pity the millennial or younger generation who has only known smart phone qwerty keypads with autocorrect.

I could receive messages but the phone wouldn’t send them.  I could see a queue of failed sends attempted by previous users.  I also received various messages in Tigrinya.  I will never know if the message below was important.  Had I missed an incredible two-for-one offer on camel milk?

Maki sent me several messages and I responded to her via my iphone.  Then she would reply to the Nokia. It was a little confusing.

I did some packing and noticed that my mattress was covered with this fabric.

I stared at it.  Why were there kangaroos all over my mattress and why had I not noticed before?  I had been here a week.  I can only posit that it was an example of how the mind narrows down when it is overwhelmed with too much new stimulus.

It could also be related to what I call “the gauze effect.”  I have often gone on a trip to a developing country thinking I’ll write blog posts every day, or fill my hours drafting a novel, or learn French because I’ll have lots of time on my hands.

I do none of that.  In fact I do nothing much, because the pace of life is so slow, the heat so intense, and getting the smallest task done feels like a major miracle.  It feels like a soft cotton gauze has settled over your head.  You can’t think, you can’t act.  Making a photocopy feels like a big accomplishment worthy of being rewarded with a nap.

I attended a two-hour training on attachment in the morning that was given by our expert psychotherapist to employees of other NGOs working with Eritrean refugees.  Several young women had brought their very cute babies, and I thought it must be a nice bonus for them that they got paid to learn about child development and attachment on the job.

A rooster had flown over the wall of our compound and was crowing incessantly in an alcove outside the training room.  Suddenly I saw one of the cooks stride purposefully past the door and the rooster gave an alarming “Bwuauck!”  We would be having poultry for dinner tonight.

After lunch we rode to one of the camps and hung around waiting for clients to show up.  One by one, women arrived, some with children.  CVT has a childcare tukul but the babies stay in the groups with their mothers.

About 15 minutes past the hour there were 10 women assembled and the facilitator began.  Thankfully she didn’t ask me to speak, she just told them who I was and I gave the same introduction as the rest of them: name, age, marital status, number of children, and how long I had been in Ethiopia.  “One week,” I said, smiling. And I thought, pained,  And I get to leave tomorrow, while none of you knows when she’ll return home or be resettled, if ever.

The facilitator translated here and there but mainly it was similar to the boys’ group the previous day; I knew enough to get the gist of what was going on.  All of the women were married with children and dressed in traditional clothing except one.  She was dressed in jeans and a tight-fitting T-shirt and had her hair in a glamorous up-do.  At first she sat slouched down in her chair with her arms crossed as if to say, “I’m not one of you.”  But as the group went on and the women shared she sat up and leaned forward.  It was a remarkable transformation, and a great example of the power of group counseling.

 

 

Beasts of Burden

The first thing I noticed in Ethiopia, and an enduring image I’ll carry in my mind, is how hard people (and animals) toil.

I spent a lot of time being driven in trucks.  Along the side of the roads there were always streams of people walking.  If it took us an hour to get from Axum to Shire, how long did it take people to walk?  It was 90F and humid with no shade.  There were no sidewalks, just rock strewn shoulders.  People walked barefoot or in what appeared to be 99 cent flip flops or jellies. No one was carrying a water bottle or wearing sun glasses.  I’m sure they weren’t wearing sun screen.

Oh, and did I mention that they were all carrying enormous bundles of twigs, gallons of water, babies, rebar, small trees, or sacks of potatoes?  Men, women, children.  Old people, little kids.  I saw a girl who looked like she was four years old walking alone in the middle of nowhere, balancing a case or juice boxes on her head.  Did she ever wonder if this was normal, or okay?

The lucky ones had camels or donkeys whose paniers were loaded with rocks or bricks or 5 gallon water jugs.  I rarely saw anyone riding a donkey or camel; they’re reserved for transporting heavy loads and riding one probably would seem frivolous.

The Ethiopian roads are probably better than what we have in the US—maybe due to not undergoing the freezing and thawing of winter. They’re smooth and black and look like they were laid down yesterday.  And yet there is very little traffic.  No one can afford a car.  In a week there, I only ever saw one passenger sedan.  Everything else is one of four things: a commercial truck, a bus, a white NGO Toyota Land Cruiser, or a Bajaj.  These diesel powered three wheeled vehicles that taxi people around for short distances.  I believe they’re called tuk-tucks in India and cocos in Cuba.  Anyway, don’t bother looking for a taxi because there are none.  And no worries about running a red light, because there are no stop lights of any color, stop signs, or signs pointing the way to anything.

Despite the great road and light traffic, Ethiopians still manage to have a lot of accidents.  I saw four road accidents in the one-hour drive from Axum to Shire, all involving buses.  One appeared to have rolled five or six times; an ambulance was at the scene and I couldn’t imagine anyone survived without major trauma.

Back in the refugee camp, I was listening to our staff tell the group how, if they feel “heavy” or worry constantly, suffer guilt for surviving when their family did not, or have flashbacks and nightmares, those are normal reactions to the abnormal experiences they’ve lived through.  They described how talking about troubling emotions with others can help people heal.

This may seem obvious to you, but I wish someone had told me all this when I was an adolescent because, well, I wasn’t tortured but I believed I was the only one on earth who felt insecure, unpopular, and ugly.  Well maybe I was, but odds are I wasn’t.

A scrawny kid of about 15 sauntered up and started listening.  He was wearing skinny jeans and a black shirt with white lettering that said, “Life is Party.”  He was smoking—the first smoker I’d seen—although I was told later that lots of the kids on their own smoke.

There were other funny T-shirts in the crowd, likely made in China.  One said “Inmy Mind;” my favorite was “Jerry Smith World Famous Surveying Co.”  How cool is that T-shirt?

I wondered how long had it been since he’d seen his mother or father. He looked tres cool but then teenagers always do.

The speaker was now talking about CVT’s services, and making very clear that CVT does not provide any material aid or cash support.  A woman raised her hand to say she’d attended the groups and that “going to CVT does not mean you are crazy.”  The audience was encouraged to contact CVT if they “knew anyone” with the symptoms described.

Despite

Life has been throwing a lot my way lately, or at least throwing a lot at people I love.  I debated whether to write about it, then remembered that the tagline of this blog is “Living well despite what life throws at you.”

It’s one thing to live large when everything is going well, it’s quite another to keep embracing life when things are not so great.

My life is fine, aside from the new upstairs neighbor, who I suspect of making wine late at night (stomp, stomp, stomp!). I have spoken to him and it is better, but I have to wear ear plugs a couple nights a week.  I worry that the people who are renting my condo while I’m in the UK/Europe/Ethiopia this summer will be bothered.

Work has been a pressure cooker; this week I submitted almost $5 million worth of funding applications for projects in Iraq and Ethiopia.  The teams were dispersed around the globe, from Kurdistan to The Gambia, which has only 14% Internet penetration. I do get a buzz out of pulling everything together to meet deadlines, and then I collapse in exhaustion.

On to the people I love: Vince broke up with his girlfriend, and for some reason it hit me hard.  I was so happy that Vince had, for a while, a fun relationship that didn’t involve drugs or alcohol.  But I realized my reaction was partly about me.  A few weeks after I turned 40, my serious boyfriend dumped me.  I wondered if that was it—I would never meet anyone again.  After all, I was 40!  Vince will be 39 this year.  I have no idea if he feels like it’s over—I hope not—but I did.

The thing that’s really thrown me is hearing from Son #2 after a four-year silence.

I wrote a series of seven posts about Vince’s brother, who I gave up for adoption. I’ve never written about how I found him after many attempts and despite Catholic Charities’ best efforts to thwart us both.

I hesitated to write about this, but then—catatonic on the couch after all my proposals were done—I caught an episode of Call the Midwife that had an adoption storyline and I was reminded that the silence and shame that surrounds adoption has got to be broken.

Vince and I met him once, over 15 years ago.  We met at a restaurant; I can’t remember exactly when or where because it was so surreal.

His name was the same as one of my brothers, but I will call him by the name I gave him, Isaac.  He looked a lot like Vince but with different coloring.  I asked if I could give him a hug and he said, “Of course!” and hugged me for a long time.  Several hours of talking passed like seconds.  We hugged goodbye and pledged to stay in touch.

It didn’t’ happen.  Isaac’s adoptive mother was opposed to him meeting me, and he was already going behind her back.  But he and Vince continued to meet up and developed a bond; Vince wrote about it here.  It wasn’t a happy ending, but there’s hope now that Vince is in recovery.

Isaac sent me an email out of the blue about five years ago, with photos of his wife and kids.  My grandchildren, who I’ve never met.  His wife has the same name as my mother.

He said he would like for me to meet them, but then he disappeared again.  I didn’t pursue it him because I didn’t want to be disappointed again.

Isaac wrote to me again last month.

His wife has Multiple Sclerosis.  Severe, aggressive MS that affects her vision, speech, and mobility. He and I have been writing for about a month now, and I am hopeful we can stay in touch this time, but it’s stirring up a lot of regret, resentment, love, and hope.

Gatekeepers

This is a series of posts about Belize and Guatemala that starts here.

Waiting in the gate area for my flight to Belize. Why do people crowd around the jet way entrance as soon as the boarding announcements begin? It takes at least half an hour to board everyone, and once you’re in the jet way you stand in line anyway.  Then you stand in the aisle of the plane til you can reach your seat, so what was the rush?

But crowd everyone did, except me and a few other hangers back.  Maybe people thought the announcements would sound clearer if they got closer.  Why is it that airlines can propel a million-pound vehicle through the air but they can’t invent a PA system that’s as clear as a MacDonald’s drive through?

A group of military personnel stood patiently as tourists in flip flops and shorts shoved in front of them.

Ah, now I could make out part of the announcement.  They were asking for volunteers to give up their seats and take a later flight because the plane was “very full.”  You mean, overbooked, don’t you? I thought.

I used to work for a consulting firm that analyzed the data of applicants to private colleges.  Using an algorithm with 400 data points, we would sift and sort and make recommendations.  If you were poor but your test scores were high and would bring some kind of diversity to the student body and you played the marimba, you might be offered a $50,000 scholarship toward the $60,000 annual cost of attendance.  If you were dumb but lived in the Connecticut zip code with America’s highest per capita income, they might give you a President’s Scholarship of $2,000 to flatter and lure you in.

The two principals of the firm traveled extensively to visit our clients.  College enrollment, explained one of them, shared similarities to how airlines filled seats.

“Everyone on a plane has paid a different price,” he said grumpily, which was how he said everything. “I might have paid $850 to go to Sioux Falls while the guy sitting next to me paid $500.  They’ve got my travel history, they know how much I was willing to pay in the past, they probably know how much I paid for the house in Georgetown and my condo on Summit and my Volvo, so I’m fucked.”  He had done very, very well in the college admissions consulting business.

So knowing how sophisticated it all is, you have to wonder whether, when an airline overbooks, is it intentional and if so, what’s the point?

I didn’t pay enough attention to see if anyone gave up a seat.  Next they announced that most everyone would have to check their carry ons.  What the hell?  Is this because of the jerks who are trying to game the system with their one “extra carry on item?”  That used to mean a handbag or a laptop case, but now people are testing the limits and bringing purses the size of Labradors, in addition to their actual carry on.

“We’d like to thank the US service members who are flying with us today,” was the next, pretty-clear announcement, “and invite them to board first.”

The people who had shoved past these military members now turned and smiled and thanked them for their service. Some people applauded.  The soldiers looked uncomfortable and made a beeline for the gate.

I would like to think that Delta and my fellow passengers were sincerely appreciative of these military members’ service. But we’re all so detached from the wars—er, conflicts—in which we’re involved. It’s easy elbow past them in line, then give lip service to “honoring our veterans” five minutes later without much thought about what they’ve witnessed.

I interviewed a young veteran last year.  She had been on gate duty at a US compound in Afghanistan, and she told of having to turn away a desperate father who came seeking medical care for his small son, who he was carrying.  She started crying. “Maybe you should keep working at The Gap for a while,” I said gently. “Maybe it’s too soon to work with torture survivors.”