Monthly Archives: November 2011

Wednesday’s Child

The dull ache at the base of my brain is like a relentless lover scorned. It’s giving way to a kind of vertigo that has shifted the real world into a dream as graspable as black smoke. The stench of it chokes me and turns my stomach. My tongue dries out like it’s licked the heart of the desert and been forever changed. I swallow hard to moisten the scar in my throat and soften the fortifying rock below my solar plexus. My heart beats to a random drum in staccato. Faint and without much interest in continuing.

I’m watching the credits roll and I don’t remember most of the movie. I’m too tired.

Every breath carries a thousand griefs. The tears are so stuck I don’t remember what it’s like to cry but I’m afraid if I suddenly recalled how to sob I would cry out every last drop of blood in my body. My flesh carries the marks of this beating and I’m afraid to look at them in fear I’ll find the bullet hole that went straight to my brain.

I remember a time so long ago that it feels like it belongs to someone else and not me.

There was a wide eyed girl with a heart so open she could have swallowed the whole earth with it. She believed in happy endings and prince charmings. Even though her father died tragically when she was four, she held out for the end believing it would justify the loss.

The darker the tunnel the brighter the outlet will be. The deeper the grief the greater the glory in the end. Every fairy tale says so.

Her hope would not be muted. Not by a hundred insults. Not by the false accusations of wagging tongues. Not by jealousy of lazy narcissists. Not by the inconvenience of the cubicles. Not by the misunderstandings of the ignorant.

But in the end she curled herself up in my head and went to sleep. And left me all alone. Her weight pressing in on my spinal cord.

From my quiet, forgotten corner, I watch as lovers unite and ride off into sunsets. I gaze into the eyes of the hopeful who have felt little pain in their pursuits. I inquire about the arrivals of kings and queens, born into the hands of another. I listen to the complaints of those who do not love the liberties I’ve lost.

I fell off the merry go round very early. The boy who pushed me just offered me a piece of rotten candy if I don’t tell anyone it was him. He doesn’t want it to ruin his holiday in the sun, after all.

I look down at the rags and blood and filth I’m wrapped in. I feel the patches of head where hair used to be. I lift the lids that are heavy with wrinkles and blink hard to moisten the eyes that are so dry it hurts to see. I caress the body that sags into the shape of an old woman prematurely.

And I ask her to press harder in sleep so that the credits will end. I can close my eyes and click my heals and finally go home if it’s still there.

I open my eyes to find that re-entry is never what they tell you. It’s awkward. For everyone. Some things can never be the same again. For the war-child, home vanishes in the smoke.

 

 


Day 35 cont. The Part a Court Had Nothing To Do With

I was up at five am. At the shelter by six. Done with community service at two in the afternoon. At my car by a little before three.

By three thirty I was walking 6th street, which is like the street I did my community service work on if it had a housing problem. Which it already has, of course. I get far less stares and strange greetings now… it’s as if Skid Row has rubbed off on me.

As I neared San Pedro, I noticed a line of mothers and small children so long I couldn’t see the end of it. The church had said they were expecting close to twelve hundred. They weren’t exaggerating.

A pleasant man with a name tag showed me where to go. The church I was volunteering with was doing kitchen duty. I found some familiar faces and set to work preparing some food. I was impressed to see this church had an excess of volunteers. A couple people didn’t know where to help out so they began mingling with the families and chit chatting. I was happy to discover that the families had already been given tickets ahead of time for entrance, which reduced the likelihood of addicts coming and taking donations to sell.

I spent the next six hours dishing out chilli on hotdogs, sprinkling cheese and giving fruit away.

Almost every family was latino. We served over a thousand people and I only saw about twenty black families. This struck me as unusual since almost everyone outside on the streets was black and most of the people I served at the drop in center were also black. I asked a few questions and quickly found out that most of the families had taken buses in from east Los Angeles or Pico-Union.

They were large families who receive assistance because their incomes are low and they are at risk for homelessness.

My children went to school with these children when we lived in south Echo Park. 98% of them live below the poverty line, most with grandparents, aunts and uncles under the same roof.

Let me just state for the record that I LOVE these latino children. They are sweet spirited, shy and love to show off when you get them going. Some of the church members had done some face painting and they would point to their batman, spiderman or butterfly on their cheek for us to admire while we dished out their food. Some of them would proudly point to their new shoes and do that little bounce children do in new duds. It’s amazing how far a smile will go with a small child. I began to play a game as I scooped food, seeing how many smiles I could get. Some kids were harder to crack open than others.

Some pulled themselves up on their tip-toes to see the food, their eyes wide with hunger. Others were very opinionated about what goes on a hot dog… a few to the point of obvious disgust at anything but ketchup.

One group of three brothers all told us they wanted chilli on their hotdogs. We began the process of preparing their food when their mother stopped us and told us, no. They would have theirs plain with no chilli. It was then that I had flashbacks of the sharing a room with my children after they had chilli. I laughed to myself as the women around me looked confused.

Most of the children came with mothers… three or four or five children to every woman. Some had fathers with them as well. All of them looked tired, no doubt from waiting in line for so long. My heart melted for the babies who were tied on their mother’s back with a sheet. Who needs an Ergo.

When the last hot dog was given away and every family left with warm bellies and warm hearts, we began the clean up and tear down. I was incredibly impressed with the thoroughness of the job done by the volunteers. Unlike the less than desirable cleaning job the volunteers at the shelter I’d done my community service work at would do, the place we left was spotless.

Skid Row may be the end of the line for some people, but after tonight I’m starting to see that it is also the heart of the city from which so much love occurs. And like any heart, the one that belongs to this city has symptoms of its’ illness and health. We need to quit doing crack. We need to quit hiding the things that we’re ashamed of. We need to talk about our issues more. We need to embrace the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow in our land. And we need a LOT of compassionate encouragement instead of cold judgement.

A little understanding goes a long way. On Skid Row like everywhere else.

I feel honored to have spent time here and really put my finger on the pulse of our city. Don’t worry, I didn’t count the beats.


Day 35: 40 Hours Remaining

I walked the sidewalk in the predawn hours with a box filled high with gifts. I was a little nervous since I had just found out that felons can’t carry pepper spray so I had to leave the one I was given at home. Fortunately, most of the people I passed by now know me by name and also seem to know that if they mess with me, I know them by name too.

It was freezing cold and I don’t own a jacket.

Both of these reasons impelled me to walk faster.

It was going to be my last day doing community service work on Skid Row. Too bad I still don’t have a probation officer to impress with how quickly I did it. Only forty more hours and those are assigned with CalTrans.

I was able to donate a clock to replace the teenie one they have hung up in the bed area. If I had a dollar for every time a client stared it at, squinting, and asked, “Hey, Ms. Lady… what time is it?” I’d be a rich felon.

I was also able to donate a bag of black pens. I’m sure they’ll last a day or two. And a couple of big bottles of hand sanitizer which is always running low.

My children baked cookies for the staff the night before. They are really good at it. Who knew?

But my favorite thing to give away was all the little gifts I had collected over the past weeks for the individual staff members. I had been anxiously awaiting today, my last day, to spend the whole day just loving the people who give and give and give in a part of the city that nobody ever sees. I’ve been aching to give back to them, to let them know how amazing they truly are, even when they rarely hear it.

I gave Wendy a little necklace with a silver starfish and the story of the starfish. If you don’t know the story, it’s here.

I was super blessed to pass along someone’s study Bible for Jim so he can prepare for his sermon in April.

I brought Linda a book of encouragements to read in the morning before she greets the endless line of people bringing her bags to be checked in at the front counter.

Pilar got an angel pendant to remind her of the thankfulness I’ve had for her protection and kindness during the night shifts I did.

Everyone got a little something that I hope and pray will remind them, if only for a moment, of the difference they make in the world. I want them to know there is gratitude for what they do that is deep and abiding.

Most of all, I brought something inspiring for Eric. It really wasn’t much, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I gave him one of those window candles homes sometimes have back east or during Christmastime here. I was once told that the tradition began during the civil war when families would keep a candle lit at night if they had a son or father or husband away in battle. It represented the warmth of the home they were going to someday come home to, the hope of their return.

I thanked Eric for the light he holds in the darkness for soldiers who have lost their way. His outpost is far off in the trenches, alone in the dark. But the light of hope he holds is very real for those who are ready to end their travels.

The flowers I received from staff at the shelter... The most beautiful I have ever been given.

A few of the staff members pitched in together and bought me a dozen yellow roses which I promptly placed in the only vase we had… a water bottle with the top cut off. It brought me to tears and is the most beautiful bouquet I have ever received.

I stayed an extra half an hour until the shift’s quitting time. Jimmy, a staff member from the next shift gave Wendy and I a ride to our cars. As we drove, he pointed out a white hipster with a camera, taking video of the humanity occupying San Julian. He panned down the street, shooting the sidewalk tents and inhabitants.

“Why they gots ta do that?” Jimmy asked.

“Do what?”

“Why they gots to always come down here and take pitchers an go home an show their friends and laugh at us?”

Even though he is staff, this is Jimmy’s home. He can’t even begin to understand why people on the outside would be documenting Skid Row. There is so much work to be done here. Not to “clean up” Skid Row or its’ people. What needs to be done is to lift the sights of its’ residents. I will not believe progress has been made here until Jimmy is laughing at the guy with the camera and calling him a tourist.

When I gave my last hug and got to my car, I thought I knew a thing or two about Skid Row. But in one hour I was headed back to visit a different building, a block north of where I had done my community service. Some of the members of a church I’ve visited recently in Los Angeles were handing out new shoes, clothing, food and Thanksgiving groceries to families. I was about to find a drastically different dynamic only a stone’s throw away.


Day 34: 46 Hours Remaining

Mothering is the thread that is interwoven through the fabric of life.

This morning I was sweeping in the bed area when one of the women who had slept there during the night hurriedly packed up the last of her belongings. My presence was an indication that she was running late.

“How are you this mornin?” She asked me with a big smile.

“Good. Good. And you?”

“I’m doing great. Really blessed. I start class today. All I need to do is start classes and show that to my P.O. and then my next hearing I might get my kids back. I miss them so much.”

“Oh? How many you got? How old?” My sweeping naturally paused at this moment, as it would for any mother.

“Well, there’s Jimmy, he’s just started kindergarten. And Patrice is three and then little Johnny is almost one.” She beams with that motherly pride.

My heart breaks that they slept last night away from their mama.

“What’d they get taken for?” I have a feeling I’ve grown about as confrontational as everyone else here.

“Drug possession. I went to jail and they went to my mom’s.”

So many broken families. And the cycle reproduces itself quite sustainably. Once you lose that glimmer of hope– once you snuff out that candle of a belief that this is just temporary– you become a permanent fixture of this world. It’s a different city than the one you’re used to. Things are dimmer, grimier, more in the moment. There is still life where ever you have drawn your own cliff, no matter who you are.

All it requires is a belief that human beings can, indeed, walk on water.

Wendy tells me a little later about how her own mother and father died when she was young. “I was raised by my aunt. That was a blessin, that was.”

What I thought was a tragedy, was highlighted as a blessing by Wendy. If only I could bottle her positive attitude and take it with me everywhere!

I was rolling toilet paper when a very slight, white woman made her way into the bed area with her head down. A partial paralysis of the right side of her body could not mask the fact that she was emotionally distraught.

“Ms. Wendy… I… I need a phone…” and here she trailed off into tears. It was hard to make out what she was saying under her muffled sobs.

She took a breath and tried again. “Please, Ms. Wendy… I need a phone… I just found out my mother died.” She sobbed again.

“I just can not be out here right now. I need someone to come pick me up.”

Wendy dialed the number on her own cell phone and handed it to the woman who tried her hardest not cry as she left a voicemail for someone. My heart broke for her. She looked like she was in her thirties, about my age. I wondered if I could have been in her shoes if situations in my life had been different.

How many moments of homelessness were averted in my life by the care of others, the provision of family and friends or just being in the right place at the right time to land some work. How many moments of hopelessness have I sat in where I would’ve given in to self destructive behaviors had I been around the wrong people? How many health issues did I avoid by having health insurance, being partially raised by a surgeon and a nurse and being given the ability to become educated in medical care?

So many things we take for granted.

After lunch I walked back to the shelter and passed her sitting at the bus stop. No doubt on her way to say goodbye to her mother a day too late.

 


A Moment of Silence

There is so much grief I’ve carried this last year. All within my heart are pockets stuffed with tears. If you saw the Nessie short at the beginning of Captain America, that’s me.

But when I look back through the last few years for a reason for all of this, I can only see a long trail of sacrifices I made for mothers and babies. When I examine the root for why I went into midwifery to begin with, I only find the love I felt when my first baby was placed in my arms for the first time. That mother love was so profound it spilled out into everything I touched from that moment on. It rang out and splashed out on everyone I met. The passion to share that joy was engulfing and consuming. I find no other motive.

I’m sad the judge said I could not have done what I did for altruistic reasons. I’m sad for him that he doesn’t know women like the ones I’ve been honored to work beside. Fellow birth servants who are bing lit by the same fire to serve families until we breathe our last breath.

Our hearts sound like this song. We dance to the beat of a different drum than the one most of society hears. Our rhythm is a  timeless feminine song that is the love of mothering as old as women. It is a song that has been missing in our country and is desperately needed RIGHT NOW.

————————————-

The song, linked above, is called Suo Gan and is a Welsh lullabye from mother to child. The lyrics, translated, are:

Sleep my baby, at my breast,
’Tis a mother’s arms round you.
Make yourself a snug, warm nest.
Feel my love forever new.
Harm will not meet you in sleep,
Hurt will always pass you by.
Child beloved, always you’ll keep,
In sleep gentle, mother’s breast nigh.
Sleep in peace tonight, sleep,
O sleep gently, what a sight.
A smile I see in slumber deep,
What visions make your face bright?
Are the angels above smiling,
At you in your peaceful rest?
Are you beaming back while in
Peaceful slumber on mother’s breast?
Do not fear the sound, it’s a breeze
Brushing leaves against the door.
Do not dread the murmuring seas,
Lonely waves washing the shore.
Sleep child mine, there’s nothing here,
While in slumber at my breast,
Angels smiling, have no fear,
Holy angels guard your rest.

Day 33: 54.5 Hours Remaining

I only have two more days at the shelter and I’m beginning to get sad about it. Fourteen and a half hours left to go. Tuesday will be my last day. The remaining forty hours were ordered to be done with Caltrans.

A man in a jersey walked onto the property today and started saying “six dollars for 10.” It took me a minute to realize that he had EBT cards in his hands. Every store on skid row takes EBT. Even the liquor stores and fast food restaurants. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize an addict can sell his or her EBT cards for less than their value and use the cash to buy dope. They get free food in the shelters anyway, why not?

I’m not criticizing anything about the way that works, just making an observation. Anyone who loves an addict knows there’s no way to “solve” the madness of addiction until the addict chooses to get off the ride. Even the State of California is an enabler.

“I’m sorry sir. When you show up dirty you gots ta leave. That’s how it is at the VOA. You need to go back to the VA and get yourself enrolled in a substance abuse program. You can’t come back here until some time’s gone by and you are really ready to accept help.” Eric hung up the phone and pressed his fingers to his temple, fatigued.

“Ma’am, I done told you. We don’t sign papers if you don’t got a case worker here.” Mark was getting frustrated. It was then tenth time he told the same woman the exact same thing. I put my hand on his back, trying to add some strength as I saw his cheek twinge with hidden anger. “No. No, ma’am. Thas not what I said. I said you have to go to The Midnight Mission. Not just any mission.” Twinge. Twinge. Twinge.

A staff member stood at the gate and stared across the street at the mounted police who had stopped to talk with someone who was sitting beneath a blanket that was hung up between two shopping carts filled with belongings. I wasn’t sure why they chose to stop there, randomly. The entire street is lined with people just like the homeless man they were talking to. Tents and blankets and shopping carts as far as the eye could see.

“They can sniff dope,” the staff worker mumbled.

“Who can?”

“The horses. They have em trained.”

A client walked by and proclaimed to nobody in particular, “I need to get right with God. This shit is off the hook.”

Later in the day, somebody asked Wendy what she was doing for Thanksgiving.

“Working. We don’t get holidays off.”

“You don’t?” I asked.

“No. The homeless don’t take breaks on us, y’know. The staff in the office, they get holidays off. But us here on the outside, we don’t. We get anotha day off later with pay.”

The clients’ madness is constant. It never stops. I don’t know about horses being able to smell dope, but I do know that these staff members have atypical skills. Anyone who works in a service profession knows how hard it is to care when you are never thanked. Not only are these caregivers never thanked by the homeless addicts and mentally ill people they serve, they are also never noticed. Their work is never acknowledged and goes completely unrecorded in history. There are very few people who would serve knowing they would never be rewarded in this lifetime. Thanksgiving is coming up. I’m going to thank them.


Day 32: 62 Hours Left

I watched him hold onto the handles of the cart with a grip so tight I felt my skin tingle. The man was literally holding his entire weight up by his hands. He was dragging his red tennis shoe covered feet with great difficulty, one at a time, behind him. I have never, in all my 37 years, seen someone have more difficulty walking. It was obvious he would benefit from a wheel chair.

A young woman steadied the cart as he walked and made sure his belongings didn’t fall off as he labored along. Although she appeared to be about fifteen years younger than him, her face was bright and cheerful and it was obvious she was a pleasant companion and loved him dearly. I see that a lot down here… bright and loud, shiney and witty… the women are like ornaments on the necks of the men they care for. Some of them aren’t women, technically. But the men don’t seem to mind. There is definitely a lot more testosterone than estrogen on these streets. And even more loneliness.

The man in the red tennis shoes was another reminder of the uniqueness of each individual here. Every person has a story, a lifetime lived with all their various issues dancing across the various years. Not one is alike, even if many share common themes. It’s part of what draws me into loving people. I love stories. I love them even more when I am an uninvolved viewer. I don’t like to live the drama myself.

Yet somehow, despite that, my life has become more dramatic than I ever wanted it to be.

I was drinking a water in the bed area when I overheard Paul asking one of the case managers about a newly opened office position.

“What would that person have to do?” He asked.

“Well, among other things, they would need to be good with people and developing relationships with clients.”

Paul nodded and then excitedly pointed at me.

I immediately dropped my head, embarassed to be pointed out.

The case manager laughed a little uncomfortably and then said, “Shoot, no. We don’t hire just anyone!” Within a minute I could tell he realized how painful his statement had sounded and he began to cover his tracks: “I mean, not that you’re just anyone or something. I mean they need experience and a degree and stuff.”

I laughed, but on the inside I broke. I slipped away and found an uninhabited corner to sweep up leaves and cry.

I worked hard to get through eight years of post-highschool education and have nothing to show for it. I have no degree because none is offered to licensed midwives. I have no experience in anything but loving others. I have loved with a wide open heart and served until my body ached. I’ve deprived myself of sleep for nights on end and gone without food because someone else’s need was greater. And in the end, one judge’s word brought it all to nothing. My wide open heart had a gallon of arsenic poured into it. I drank the tyranny of the cubicle dry.

And now I’m just anyone. Now I’m nameless and faceless and lost in the crowd. I could be the woman on skid row who is begging for a dollar. I could be the addict. I could be the drunk. I could now be the single mother who wraps herself up in relationship after relationship looking for satisfaction. I could be the waitress who tried to become an actress all her life but never landed anything but a handful of extra roles. I could be the hooker.

I walked a mile to 2nd and Los Angeles Streets during lunch to get away and try to remember what life was like before skid row. I bought a coffee at the cafe my attorney and I sat at in Little Tokyo and tried hard to remember the hope I once had that the system would show itself true on my behalf.

I lost myself in the crowded streets and remembered that just two months ago it was, actually, me who signed lab orders and travel approvals and birth certification letters on letterhead that had my name and medical license on it. It was me who was trusted to hold women in their most vulnerable state and honored to be the first to ever touch a human being on earth. It was me who was giving advice and calming fears and healing hurts.

As I walked back through the masses of hurting humanity who are more like me now than any other group, I was relieved to see the man with red shoes wheeling himself down the sidewalk in a brand new wheelchair given to him by the staff I love so much. There he was, my medalion of hope that love can find one solitary lonely anybody.