Wild-Eyed Poets and Basketball Stars

My father is a lifelong “wild-eyed sports fan.” A native Washingtonian, his childhood revolved around the Senators. One year, he bolted across home plate to shake Roy Sievers’ hand as Sievers crossed home plate after scoring a walk-off home run for the Washington Senators.

I’ve written a few short articles in The Washington Post about Dad’s near-legendary sports-triumphs: the time he sneaked into the White House, along with the Championship Washington Bullets, and had hot dogs with First Lady Rosalynn Carter. His longing to see his beloved Nationals take a pennant, or the World Series continues to keep him moving.

And there is the love he and my sister and I have for going to  Bruce Springsteen shows. Even Dad stands for the legendary encores, and the lights-up tent-revival sing-along of Born to Run and Thunder Road.

A bookworm, too, in his retirement, Dad has developed a callous on his elbow where it rests on his favorite reading perch, the porch swing of his house. Because I am a writer, he has always passed along must-read books and suggested writers.

For years, he has plied me with dog-eared copies of Sports Illustrated as proof that the greatest writers in any medium are sportswriters (my favorites include George Plimpton and his Miami Notebooks and just about anything by  Frank Deford).   Like Dad, I’m sure that at the top of their game, sportswriters are our true poets and storytellers–not, by the way, content creators.

The most recent addition to that list may be new-to-me novelist and sportswriter, Jack McCallum. His Summer 2017 profile of Tom Meschery, poet, teacher, and former NBA star. Check out Meschery’s blog on sports, literature, and news. But first, grab SI, find a porch or imagine one, and swing for a moment as you read.

Believe: The Healing Presence of a Compassionate Physician

Note on this: The process of getting to press in a magazine I revere, The Sun, is arduous, and my interview with my dear friend, Raymond Barfield, was more than a year in the making. Ultimately the introduction that I wrote led to lots of negotiations. So for those of you who might find the basis of our friendship of interest–and some insights on how Ray thinks about the world, and the role of music and language in his heart and practice, here is my unpublished introduction. I’d love for you to respond to it.

Ray Barfield and I first met in the resort town of Hammamet, Tunisia, where the World Health Organization had gathered people from around the world to talk about a new concept, “decent care,” and HIV/AIDS, and dying. It was January 2009, and Obama was about to be inaugurated. Whenever I walked through the souk in the resort, merchants would shout at me in different languages until I turned my head at the sound of English, and be cajoled in to some behind-the-counter drink of tea with mint and pine nuts and conversation about America. Other conference attendees would wave at me quizzically as they rushed to the next session.

I don’t remember talking with Ray during the five or six days of meetings. At meals, I wanted to sit with people who were from places I would likely never see: Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Uganda. Ray, an attractive curly-haired pediatric oncologist from Duke University, did not strike me as exotic. He was just another middle-aged American man, and I’d seen enough of those.

hammamet arch

During our daily meetings of endless discussions, Ray seemed brilliant in what he had to say about the dying of children, and the new mix he hoped to build at Duke, where he had just joined as a professor of medicine and divinity. He was great when it came to arguing about words, like subsidiarity, which most English-speakers did not know, and the others—from the Middle East, India, Africa, Europe–could not translate. It turned out that Ray is a philosopher, too with a Ph.D. earned after he completed medical school.

On the long trip home, I had a several-hour layover in the Charles deGaulle Airport. I was flying business-class, and the lounge was comfortable and bright. I spotted Ray, hunched over and writing something in long hand, and took a seat across from him.

He told me that he was working on his novel, which a major publisher had expressed interest in. I remember thinking I’d really had enough of doctors who, it seemed, were so brilliant that just being able to heal the sick was not enough for them. I was tired, and, honestly, just jealous. For the next few years, we kept up via Facebook.

But in early 2013, I developed what has proven to be an intractable neuropathic condition, one that was accompanied by a year of such stress and loss and sorrow, I thought that I would die. I didn’t know any pain experts, had trouble finding one who would see me—and then remembered that Ray, as a pediatric palliative care physician, would know about pain. I emailed him for help, and he responded with a copy of the very latest research, which detailed the benefits of combining opioids and anti-siezure medications. Back and forth we went by email, as I tried desperately to find kind of relief.

From those early emails, an enduring friendship has evolved. It turned out that, like me, Ray wrote poetry, too, and had a book out called, Life in the Blind Spot. We traded books, although styles were different, out love of language was not. Indeed, our intentions were always the same: to make something beautiful and enduring that matters.

When medication after medication did not help, Ray suggested that my best path to healing would be to spend more time looking for beauty, or to make it when I could not see it.

He told me about his approach to his own life, one that includes all the usual issues of being a husband and father and citizen—and the complex issues of caring for very sick and fragile children, of whom 100 will die each year. (The math on that number is bleak: that is two children each week, no matter what Ray and his brilliant colleagues offer.)

Ray said that he imagines his own life to have come with a bag full of golden coins., which he cannot see or count. Each day, he pulls out one coin, and considers how to spend it. Once it is spent, he says, it can never be reclaimed. And so, he urged me, spend that coin on something valuable.

Ray is at once miserly and generous with those coins. Most of his are spent in a hospital unit, managing bone marrow transplants, or pain in children with sickle cell disease, or playing his beloved guitar for a child in the ICU, or listening to desperate and grief-stricken parents.

Other days, rare ones, the coins go to his guitar playing or his writing. His first novel, The Book of Colors, came out in 2015. Written in the voice of a 19-year old biracial pregnant young woman whose mother has died in a crack house, Ray tells the story of Yslea as she makes her way to beauty.

When he is challenged at the seeming hubris of this—a middle-aged white professor from Duke talking in the voice of a young black woman—he bristles.

“Is there not room for imagination?” he asks. “Can I only tell stories through my own experience? Tell that to Faulkner.” Novelists must take the voices that come to them, Ray says.

I have spent some time at his home in Carrboro, where he is up at five each morning to build a fire near the desk where he will write for a few hours in longhand on plain sheet moleskin notebooks. Once his day begins at Duke, there will no time to write or dream.

The living room has no spare wall space—shelves of books collected over the course of a long marriage fill every wall from ceiling to floor. A stone fireplace is the room’s central focus, and the set-up reminds me of a church or an altar. The room is a peaceful place to be, and I am lucky to count myself welcome there (so long as I stay quiet while Ray lets the muse loose).

Our Sun interview began last October, on a crazy-fast car ride through the streets of Carrboro, where a fall festival was underway. Ray was racing to the home of luthier Wes Lambe to drop off his three guitars, which needed work if they were to sound the way Ray wanted them to.

As the two spoke, I had a glimpse of the artisan within the physician. Ray is deeply attached to his guitars, which, he says, have played a key role in almost every important moment of his life. Most recently, he has taught himself to play like the Australian guitar master, Tommy Emmanuel, a vibrant, layered, percussive sound which Emmanuel calls, “a harmonic cascade.

“Don’t fuck up,” Ray tells Wes as he snaps the last guitar case shut. Leaving those guitars, I sense, is a painful act of faith. If a tool slips, the luthier can easily compromise or destroy an instrument.

It is what the parents who leave their children in Ray’s care must do, too. And so too, the children who are old enough (that is, not infants) to understand what is happening to them. Patients give Ray their bodies, that they might be healed. One wrong move, and they are gone. So Ray works carefully with them, often at the very edges of what might heal.

People often think of doctors as mechanics, or compare health care to an autobody shop. It is far from that. The care of the sick and the dying is an act of the spirit, a glimpse of the holy. Ray knows that he is an artist—and he knows that healing is not always equivalent to curing.

For two days last fall, Ray and I hung out and talked. He can be funny—and he can be cruel. He can be full of beauty, and sometimes, every so often, a bit of grace, too.

This summer, we got together on a mission involving one of Ray’s guitars. He wanted Nils Lofgren, a rock-and-roll hall of fame musician, to sign the guitar. Arlo Guthrie had, Ray said, so why not Nils? Because Nils follows me on Twitter, Ray and I figured there was a chance.

After Lofgren’s show in Annapolis last spring, Ray and I stood in a long line, he with his guitar, and everyone else with their CDs and albums and t-shirts. Nils looked puzzled when Ray set his guitar on the table, but he smiled. I told him that this moment would bring Ray such joy.

IMG_8028

Nils wrote, “Believe,”* and so Ray does, or tries, even when life makes that hard. Ray believes in heaven, but more often than not, it is of this earth.

 

key words: life of a pediatric oncologist, chasing spirituality, finding meaning, care for dying children, Duke School of Divinity, Duke School of Medicine, Dr. Raymond Barfield

How to Cope with the Cycle, Not Stages, of Grief

I was invited to write about grief for a popular website, so I have been thinking about it, and what I might write. So many have written and sung and drawn their experiences of grief and loss. What could I add to that canon?

I found myself thinking of something my friend Reuben mentioned so many years ago after his dad died–that the sight of a dapper older man walking down the street with a hat tipped a certain way could start his  grief all over again.

For me today, it is this blizzard. In February 1994, I was a single mom of three under the age of 5. My granny, who had bought the house next door to mine so that she could stay near to help with Conor, my first baby, had fallen and broken a hip.

That summer, my uncle had built a back step to the deck off my kitchen–low rise, long run– so that she could come straight across the yard and in the backdoor, bypassing the steep stairs out front.

When she came home to recuperate from the broken hip, my job was to get over in the morning, to check on her and get her set up for the day.  Alyson, my youngest daughter, was a month old, so I would strap her in a Snugglie under my maternity coat, and bundle up Conor and Meredith, ages 4 and 2, in snow clothes.

Someone would inevitably need to go potty the minute I had them all dressed. But eventually, we would tromp across the ice and snow to my Grandmother’s house. I would pray not to fall with the baby strapped on.

The deep snow today reminds me of that winter, and a year in which I lost my marriage and my grandmother. I was  thinking about how much I still miss her, and also how I did not know to appreciate her more. I expected her to live forever, even though I was old enough to know better.

When Conor was a newborn, I would get  irritated with my two grandmothers–who only ever loved and helped me–because they had so much advice for me about what to do with that colicky baby.

They wanted to hold him all the time, take him from me and urge me to rest, or shower, or work on a freelance job. My Grandmom Hourihan (Graom) would arrive every weekday morning around 8 to take him to the living room so that I could get some sleep. My Grandmom Lynch (Meme) would come every Tuesday and sit in a chair with me and sing The Tennessee Waltz.

Before our move to the exurbs, my mother, Mary, and my great aunt, Anna, who both worked nearby, would come by for a cup of coffee and a sandwich. I was lucky to be surrounded by their decades of experience, but too foolish to know it.

Now that I am a grandmother, too, I know it. I understand what my grannies were about, beyond helping me with adjust to motherhood.

Holding a baby is a brief touch on the future; the old know that our time for holding babies is limited, and that we will become invisible before we become nothing. I know that my times of holding babies is long gone, save the few times a week that my grandbaby allows me to carry her.

An artist friend died earlier this month–alone and unexpectedly at the age of 73. Luckily he was a writer, so I am able to hear his voice through his blog, Waterfall Road. A friend of his posted this from TJ’s blog, 2014:

I don’t believe this is the path of my enlightenment in one lifetime. I see it a cycle through this lifetime in self-awareness, saying in signs I’ve done well not to get side-tracked, passing through opportunities for distraction, indulging some and letting them go, returning to the flow, allowing the flow, trusting the flow that just keeps rolling along. 

More than ever, I feel myself in that flow, as TJ said. It will just keep flowing along, always forward, never back. How I wish I could flow back to 1994–not the bad times–so my grannies could once again give me their accumulated love and wisdom and heart. I would make a pot of coffee with plenty of cream, and we would admire my beautiful babies.

“Doll,” my Grandmom Hourihan would say, as I fretted over some milestone or misbehavior or worry, “Slow down. It’s over before you know it.”

Or as Iman posted  on Instagram about  David Bowie  dying, “sometimes you will never know the true value of a moment until it becomes a memory.”

 

Keywords: grieving process, grieving loss of relationship, grieving for celebrities, grieving process for friends

Waterfall Road: How I Missed It

For a few years now, I have enjoyed the friendship and encouragement of an artist/writer/dreamer, TJ Worthington, who lived on Waterfall Road in a place called Sparta. We met through Your Daily Creative Practice, a Facebook group founded and managed by visionary artist, Ruth Schowalter of Georgia. I enjoyed TJ’s blog, Waterfall Road, and his observations about life in the mountains of North Carolina, and the people and creatures he encountered there.

In my mind, one day, I was going to Carolina to meet him. But on January 4, 2016, TJ died unexpectedly, at home at least, and not in some ICU or ambulance. This poem is a dream of how our meeting might have gone. Perhaps one day, in the stars, it still will.

I often enjoyed his blogs, but his last one, posted Jan. 4, 2016, struck at my heart so.

So does one on the topic of regret, something I am trying to release from my own heart.

Though he lived in the rural mountains, his heart lived in the world. Here is one of his last works of art, called “34” which he posted with lines from the Tao-te-ching:

 

34

I will be there in Sparta on Jan. 23, to read a poem for TJ and to meet his many friends and hear their stories. And who knows, maybe we’ll dance, or play a tune, or sit in the quiet of the woods, and listen.

 

TJ Worthingon, death, memorial, art

The Taste of Christmas Past

For years now, I have harbored my great-grandmother’s cookbooks and order pads that date from the 30s and 40s, when she was a cook at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. I have a half-baked notion that one day I might cook the many recipes and so have a taste of American foods, circa early 20th-century.

 

cookbooks
I also have copies of correspondence between her and her three sons at the start of World War II, as they made cross-country journeys, and wrote to her of the thrill of Hollywood, the tedium of North Carolina. As the war progressed, the long lists of what she ordered to feed the students in her house grew shorter and shorter; the menus, which had been fairly lavish in 1940 or so, become quite stark by 1944. While my uncles’ letters are usually light and full of a sense of adventure, they are tempered by letter in which she writes of her sorrow when her eldest son, shot down and killed in a mission over France.

I have long wanted to write a book that blends these artifacts, and tells the story of one Irish immigrant family as it began to make its way through and into America.Instead I keep it all squirreled away, too engaged in making a living and raising a family to devote my imagination to such an endeavor.

This Christmas, though, my first as a grandmother, I’ve been thinking about my own grandmother and her mother, and the smells of my childhood, in the kitchen of the house where my grandmother sometimes lived with us, when she was not traveling the world.

She enjoyed a long career as a research scientist in Beltsville, a retirement to Australia, and globetrotting for many years. Between times, she sometimes lived with us. She had an extensive circle of women friends, people with whom she had worked or gone to church or played poker.

Every year, as Christmas neared, she would being her preparations for the epic task of making miniature fruitcakes as gifts for these friends. The process would begin with a stench – there is no other word for it – of boiling blackstrap molasses, a process which, in my memory, lasted for days. At the same time, she would set up shop at the kitchen table, where she would chop candied fruit into almost microscopic bits and pieces. Days of baking would then ensue, with hundreds of tiny fruitcakes arrayed in cookie tins that she would fill and stash in her room. She would mail some packages to her friends around the world, and deliver others in person as the holiday neared.

Her friends all had similar ideas, each with her own specialty, and my grandmother would often come home with baked delights—pfefferneuse, bird’s nests, sugar cookies and gingerbread. I remember feeling vaguely embarrassed for my grandmother, who had returned such gustatory delights with something as awful-smelling as fruitcake. Surely, it was one hot mess.

I have yet to try fruitcake –memories of the awful smell of boiling molasses has kept me from it. I felt vindicated in my ick-factor years later when I learned that fruitcakes originated in Ancient Egypt, where they were buried with the dead. Where they belong, I think. (In fact, my parents tell me that the smell that bothered me was the rum, and that everyone loved the 99 proof fruitcakes.)

This year, as a new grandmother, I thought I might try whipping up some treats from my great grandmothers’ recipe book. I had hoped that the fruitcake recipe would be there among the book’s crumbling treasures. Instead I have read how to make Northampton pudding and date and nut torte, and marveled at confections that require 10 pounds of sugar of 4 pounds of butter or 40 egg whites. My sweet tooth drools.

The back of the book includes a page of tips about working in the kitchen, and includes handy ideas, such as using milk to rinse eggs from a bowl, and never using two spoons when one would do. I am taken by my great-grandmother’s spidery handwriting, and the many names listed beside so many recipes I like the smell of the worn pages, the food stains, the simplicity of it.

My own heirloom recipe is one my mother clipped from the Washington Post years ago, for thimble cookies. During the inflationary 70s, we used margarine for everything – but the thimble cookies were so special, we actually used real butter. I was allowed to use my great-grandmother’s thimble to press holes in each cookie, which I filled with raspberry jam. I still do. If my grandmother was around when I made these, she would chide me to be sure to scrape every iota of butter from the wrappers.

I still do. And the cookies are as tasty as ever, more so because they are a rare treat. A batch of 40 usually lasts an afternoon.

I have an image of myself, with the ghosts of my grandmother and her mother looking down and over my reading glasses, as I measure out ingredients. I wonder what my granddaughter will like—and what will cause her to shrivel up her nose and turn to something more tasteful.

key words: Christmas, grandmother, fruitcake, thimble cookies, Massachusetts, Smith College, World War II, cookbooks, recipes

Lift Every Voice: Listen to Women Veterans

During last week’s Veteran’s Day inspired concerts and tributes to veterans, a Hill-gathering of Disruptive Women (and our man of the month, Rep. Tim Walz, (MN-OI) spoke truth with power. Gathered to discuss challenges faced by women veterans, the group included veterans, members of Congress and their spouses, congressional staff, state leaders, and filmmakers. The group had had enough of platitudes and promises. We were ready for disruption, and Rep. Walz delivered just that, saying he was done with “incremental change” (Washington’s latest, favorite buzz-word) and prepared to lead “seismic change.”

Walz speaks from a place of experience, knowledge, and passion: He is a retired soldier, and the highest ranking enlisted man to serve in Congress. During a 24-year stint in the Army National Guard, including a tour of duty in Operation Enduring Freedom, he also taught high school. The latter tour provided him some insight into chaos and disruption. In the 113th Congress, he will serve in leadership roles that include the National Guard and Reserves Caucus, and the Congressional Veterans Jobs.

In his remarks, Walz noted that “it doesn’t take much to offer health care that people can’t access.” He added that although the VA has made some progress since the days when “the best thing the VA could say for what it had done for women was that the exam tables no longer face the door.” Later, he added that the VA system—staffed by dedicated people—still has far to go to really offer care for all, noting that, “it is much easier to put up a yellow ribbon than it is to step up care.”

As recent Veterans Health Administration scandals have revealed, its challenges go beyond exam room layout – and problems reflect deeper challenges within the system in particular and American culture in general.

The day’s two other panelists included Emmy award-winning filmmaker Patty Lee Stotter, whose award-winning documentary, Service: When Women Come Marching Home, uses women’s voices to tell their story. Director of Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, Lourdes E. (Alfie) Alvarado-Ramos, detailed her state’s actions to address specific problems.

Stotter has crafted films to give women veterans a place to speak. Her presentation included quotes from several women veterans, and included poignant thoughts, such as these:

“Tell them how I had to file a congressional inquiry two years after my daughter was born because the VA was NOT paying my prenatal care bills, which impacted my credit score…Tell them that the stress of being billed throughout my pregnancy with no advocacy from the VA left me crippled with PTSD and physical pain.””

“Tell them I was told that I should leave my boots on while having a trans-vaginal ultrasound because the stirrups were so filthy.”

“Today, I am fighting for my life. I have an extreme case of PTSD that has rendered me housebound. I have been in the disability claims process for nearly 4 years…”

 “I was raped in Iraq and when I went to report it I was told I was lying and probably wanted it. I was denied the right to get medical help.”
Alvarado-Ramos, a veteran herself, offered models from the other Washington that reflected possibilities for change and improvement. Washington State, she said, has, 70,000 women veterans, and, by 2040, projections are that there will be a much higher percentage of women veterans, as well as on active duty, as the numbers of men decline. She listed a dozen programs underway, most brand-new and inspired by her own service. These include: establishment of a women’s veterans committee; development of a veterans registry to better tracking and inform veterans; hiring more women service officers to help veterans of claims; and creation of a statewide information campaign to educate the the public and raise awareness of veterans’ ongoing struggles.

All of these programs represent a step toward addressing shameful situations that our veterans encounter – including homelessness, food insecurity, incarceration, mental health problems, sexual assault and economic hard times.

DW on the Hill

In a follow-up interview with Disruptive Women, Stotter talked about gender stereotyping and discrimination, and its toll on women veterans. I told her about the work of MacArthur genius Ai-jen Poo to organize domestic workers in New York City: When Ai-jen talks about women work—particularly paid housekeeping and babysitting–she notes that  says simply do not value or compensate the people who do the work that allows the rest of us to do our work

“Exactly!” Patty said. “We don’t even value the work that allows the rest of us to be free.” She continued, “I am furious that hard-working people who are soldiers get so little. Going to war, we see the worst of what the universe has to offer.  In our response to women veterans, I fear that we are losing our soul.”

It was the first time in a decade of attending DC panel discussions that I went home and spent three hours writing a poem about what I had heard.  Earlier in the week I’d written an essay about Bruce Springsteen’s performance at The Concert for Valor, and my appalling realization that our veterans must rely on the national equivalent of bake sales to resume civilian life.

Musician Bruce Springsteen performs during The Concert for Valor on the National Mall on Veterans' Day in Washington

I am proud to join this movement to advocate for women veterans. Not a veteran myself, I cannot imagine what women veterans have endured. But as a midlife woman, I know too well what it means to have a voice that is silenced. A voice that gets shouted down or shamed or discounted. A voice that gets shoved against the wall with a knife. A voice that does not dominate the room.

As a Disruptive Woman, I know what it means to reclaim your voice, to use it for good, to launch seismic change that echoes for many, and that helps people build new and safer shelters within their own minds, bodies, and lives.

Each and every Disruptive Woman should join our sisters in this battle. We can all sing in this chorus. Perhaps not from the same page or even the same score, but in a song that raises our voices and lifts them for those who, just now, cannot do it for themselves.

key words: Disruptive Women in Health Care, Tim Walz, women veterans, military sexual trauma, rape, wounded warriors, Ai-jen Poo, Bruce Springsteen, Concert for Valor

 

This post originally ran on Disruptive Women in Health Care on Tuesday, November 18, 2014.

Race, memory, and the present: Washingtonian, October 2014

I grew up in a racially polarized time and place. I thought my Dad was Atticus Finch and Clarence Darrow. His first murder trial involved defending a black man accused of first-degree murder in the shooting death of a white police officer. This is my memory–and what it means in today’s racially polarized America.

 

Shattered House, Washingtonian, Oct 2014

 

Key words: race, Ferguson, murder, biracial

A Future So Bright: C4 Blogathon, Day 4

I’m great at lists, not so great at goal-setting. So goal-setting for my writing is a challenge,
but here goes.

1. Five goals to achieve w/in next ten years (personal or professional)

  • Find a regular, paying outlet for creative non-fiction essay
  • Write a few non-fiction books on extraordinary women, first Evelyn Wynn-Dixon, then Sofya Kovalevsky
  • Devote more time, in a more concentrated way, to reclaim the joy of being creative person
  • Get out of debt and get my kids through college
  • Visit some places that I love, and some that I daydream about

2. Now, five goals that need to be achieved in short-term to make these a reality

  • Engage more with writers in my virtual and real-time communities and attend readings and submit work to journals I admire
  • Investigate and understand the process of writing biography, develop book proposals, and pitch
  • Concentrate on centering happiness within myself, not seeking it from validation or support from Erik who cannot provide it
  • Save money, and establish and adhere to budget

3. Now, five goals, this year

  • Write the book proposal and participate in pitchfests I have registered for
  • Connect with people who are skilled in writing nonfiction and learn from them (especially an expert on this, Walter Isaacson)
  • Continue to follow steps to pay down debt, which I insituted this year
  • Continue to work on strategies to address chronic physical pain, and spiritual pain
  • Keep arranging small road trips, either solo or with family, that energize me

Writing these down makes me feel anxious–but I have a good friend who often tells me to put ideas into the universe, that this stating of intentions is the first step to making them a reality. As for a photo, I will insert one from today. This time last year, I thought I was on my last-ever ski trip, due to arthritis and finances. But I am on new meds that make the knees not so bad, and I found a great deal. In this photo, I am on top of a mountain, with the whole world spread out before me. I am not anxious, and nothing is holding me back.

 

Janice on the mountaintop