People Have to Live Somewhere

Every single day, I commute past tent encampments for the homeless here in Seattle. When I first came out here, I found this shocking. I came from Jacksonville, Florida, and I had never seen anything quite like this. You’d think the Florida climate would be more amenable to homelessness, but no. The West Coast experiences much more of it than the East Coast does, according to most homeless counts. It disturbs me greatly that I’m getting used to the sight of these encampments. The shock is gone. The sadness remains.

I’ve got a few theories, now, as to why there’s such a difference from one coast to the other. First, of course, is that living out here is about 3 times more expensive than it is in Jacksonville. A lot more of us, here, teeter on the brink of financial ruin. Second, there are fewer places to hide such encampments. While Seattle has a much lower population than Jacksonville, it’s much more densely packed. There are not huge swaths of woods in which one can disappear. Third, I suspect we’re a good deal more tolerant out here. I know for a fact that the Jacksonville police tend to drive people out to the county line and dump them, making them continually walk the 20 or 30 odd miles back to civilization in the oppressive heat, without food or water.

That county line solution is just cruel. People have to live somewhere. Every creature on this planet does. It’s not a homeless problem. It’s a home problem. And it isn’t new.

A friend of mine shared with me this photo of Seattle’s Hooverville from the 1930’s. After reading about it on historylink.org, the amazing free online encyclopedia of Washington state history (specifically here and here), I discovered that this photo only captures about half the shantytown that existed there at the time, and there were others scattered about as well. The conditions were appalling. People built shacks out of whatever they could find. The city burned them down twice before they recognized the futility of it all. People have to live somewhere.

Incidentally, that Hooverville is not far from where Starbucks corporate headquarters now stands. Irony, anyone? And as long as REITS (Real Estate Investment Trusts) are allowed to exist, giving the richest among us the ability to make huge profits from housing, thus artificially inflating rents, this problem will only get worse.

When I get off work at 11pm, on my way home, I often see an old man with a walker standing by the stop sign at the end of my highway exit ramp. He holds a sign that says, “Homeless veteran. Please help.” The cynical side of me thinks about all the stories one hears about people making very good money through panhandling, and the stories about how some people want to be homeless. But this guy… I’ve seen him out there at midnight, in the pouring rain, in 35 degree temperatures. No financial return or lust for a freewheeling life can explain that.

The man needs help. And I feel very inadequate to the task. I couldn’t even help one person for more than a few days. And there are just so many out there. I don’t know what to do.

Sometimes I resent this man. He doesn’t let me forget. He doesn’t give me the peace to drive home to my nice house at the end of my shift and climb into my hot tub and forget.

But then I realize that he probably would like to forget, too.

Seattle Hooverville

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QTIP

Recently I got to watch a video of a conference that took place in honor of International Women’s Day. It counted as credit for a work requirement. I have to have a certain number of hours of Race and Social Justice training every year. But I was actually looking forward to seeing this video regardless of its mandatory nature. It’s refreshing to see feminist issues being addressed when you spend the bulk of your time in a male-dominated workplace.

The majority of this particular conference addressed that very concern: how does one cope in a job where women are often discounted or shunned? So, I settled back with a notepad and a pen and prepared to be enlightened.

A lot of the pearls of wisdom were things that I had already learned just out of pure survival. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Don’t try to change yourself into something you are not. It’s not only okay to be who you are, but it also brings value to your workplace. While this information was not new to me, it was comforting to have it validated.

I was also listening closely to what was being said because there was a short questionnaire that I had to fill out in order to get the training credit. They were questions you couldn’t answer unless you watched the entire conference. That makes sense. No cheating.

But of all the takeaways from this forum, I was a little befuddled by the one the training department really seemed to zero in on. The question was, “What is QTIP?”

It turned out that the subject was brought up by one of the last women to speak at the panel discussion toward the end of the video. Her main coping skill, she said, was QTIP: Quit Taking It Personally.

Sigh.

That’s their primary takeaway? The words of a woman who is propping up that male bias? Seriously?

How many times have we heard some version of QTIP?  “All you gals (and I hate the word gal, for what it’s worth) need to stop being so emotional.” “Don’t worry your pretty little heads.” “Stop being hysterical.”

Until people stop equating having emotions with weakness or a mental health issue, most women are going to be sidelined. Because most of us do have emotions. And when it comes to sexism in the workplace, we have a great deal to be pissed off and upset about.

How can you not take it personally when you’re being singled out because you’re the only woman in the room? That is personal. That’s highly freakin’ personal.

Now, I agree that how you express those feelings makes a difference. It’s never good to have your head explode during a staff meeting. But you have a right to be heard, and to speak your truth calmly and clearly.

No human should fly off the handle. It gets you nowhere. But take it personally? Heck yes. It’s personal. And anyone who tells you it isn’t is lying to you, gal. Make no mistake about that.

Ladder-of-Success

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Writing into a Void

Today is the 93rd birthday of a beloved aunt, one of my favorite people in the whole world. Unfortunately, she’s in a nursing home 3000 miles away. Even if I were to go visit, she doesn’t even remember who I am most of the time, such is the level of her dementia. The last thing I want to do is upset or confuse her. I’ve stopped calling her for that very reason. My last call left her agitated and unhappy. She couldn’t understand why I couldn’t visit her, even though I may as well have been a stranger.

So I write her letters and send her some chocolates. She adores chocolate. It’s one of the million things we have in common. I hope she can still eat it. I suspect the nursing home staff are always happy to see my packages.

It’s hard, writing to someone who hasn’t responded to you in any way in about 5 years. I don’t even know if she actually receives what I send. Her primary caretaker has taken a disliking to me for some reason, even though we’ve never met. She told me that my letters are all about me, and she finds that annoying, and therefore stopped giving me the updates, that I long for, years ago.

Of course my letters are about me. It’s the only frame of reference that I have. It’s not like I can ask her what’s new in her bedridden world. The question would go unanswered. It’s like trying to communicate into a black hole. My own voice doesn’t even echo back to me, and hers is long gone.

So, in my letters, I reminisce about things she and I used to do together. I tell her a joke that I know she would have really found funny, once upon a time. I tell her she is not forgotten. I tell her she’s my favorite person. I tell her I’m now married, and happy, and I’ve written a book, and I have three dogs. The person I used to know would have been glad to hear these things. I also send her pictures.

Writing to her these days brings tears to my eyes, because I know that the person that I love so much is already gone in so very many ways. But I’ll continue to write into the void, for the love of the aunt who meant so much to me, and because I want her to know she isn’t forgotten, even though she’s forgotten me.

More than anything, I want to hear her tell me she’s proud of me. But as I drop each package in the mailbox, I know that isn’t going to happen. Never again. And that leaves a black hole in my heart.

Echo

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I Feel Fine

Sometime around the age of 10, I suddenly realized that when people asked me how I was doing, they didn’t really want to know. It made them uncomfortable when I responded honestly, because my childhood was your basic nightmare. It was a bitter pill to swallow, figuring out that people, in general, really don’t care.

So I had to come up with a stock response to get through those situations. I couldn’t say “fine,” though, because I’ve never been that good of a liar. So I started saying “Pretty good,” because they could make up their own happy little scenario from there, and yet I wouldn’t make myself sick by blowing sunshine.

“Pretty good” became such a habitual response for me that I began to give it even less thought than the people who did the asking. It was as rote as saying “God bless you” after someone sneezed. It’s what you say to move on to the next thing.

And then suddenly, about a month ago, someone asked me how I was doing, and I said fine. It wasn’t premeditated. It’s just what came out. It startled me.

I was even more surprised by the fact that, upon reflection, I knew I was telling the truth. I’m fine. I’m fine! For the first time in my life, I’m doing just fine.

I’ve been saying fine ever since. And no one except me (and now you, dear reader) has any idea how momentous that is. Which is just fine.

Snoopy Dance

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The Physics of Friendship

In my freshman year of college, I was scared to death. I was away from home and family for the first time in my life. I was being exposed to new ideas. I was working toward my future. I was adulting with no instruction manual.

Fortunately I made an amazing friend, and we became practically inseparable. She was my lifeline. We were like binary stars. No pressure there, right?

She was from a different country, with a much more reserved culture. So when she occasionally acted rather cold, I cut her some slack. I’m a loyal friend, and that’s what loyal friends do.

And then one time she cut me out entirely. She avoided me and didn’t speak to me for about two weeks. I have no idea why. I didn’t have a clue then, either. That was the worst part about it. I had no idea what I had done to deserve such treatment. And since she was the only close friend I had made there, it felt like someone had scooped out my heart with a rusty grapefruit spoon.

Finally, her roommate couldn’t stand to see me so distraught, and forced her to talk to me. I was so relieved that I didn’t even question anything. I don’t even recall there being any awkwardness to our friendship after that. We just picked up where we left off. So be it.

During one of our breaks, she came to Florida with me and stayed with my family. Two years later, when I was studying abroad and she was bicycling across the United States, she left her bike in the garage of a total stranger in Texas, hopped a bus, and came to visit me in Mexico. In a time before internet, we would exchange 30-page letters with each other. I loved those letters.

I considered her my best friend. She never said the same to me. (That’s happened a lot in my life. A whole lot. It’s hurtful.)

Over time, we’ve drifted apart. Thirty-page letters are no longer feasible for either of us. Still, I continued to reach out, despite the oceans and continents between us.

She’s never been very comfortable with the internet. She doesn’t have a Facebook Page. She stopped answering e-mails at least a decade and a half ago. My attempts to connect have been ignored.

I still think of her often, but I’m no longer the girl I was at 17. I’m no longer willing to be the only one who makes an effort to sustain a friendship. I realize that I deserve more than I’ve gotten in recent decades. I know I’m a good friend to have. But I can’t force anyone to care.

In recent years, I’ve taken the Physics of Friendship much more seriously. Newton says that an object that is in motion will not change its velocity unless a force acts upon it. The same applies to friends. We are all objects in motion. If friends drift away, I used to try to be that force that slowed them down. Now my energy is much more limited.

Maybe I should stop viewing it as her pushing me away, and start looking at it as her pushing herself from me. Because I don’t need to go anywhere. I’m in a good place.

So when you feel that gap starting to widen with someone you care about, let ‘em drift, I say. You are not responsible for their motion. Don’t cling. Nothing ought to be that hard.

And then, too, letting go is sometimes all it takes for someone to want to return to your orbit. But mostly not, truth be told. Mostly not.

And that’s okay. As Max Ehrmann wrote, “No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

Drifting Apart

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Incredible Kindness

Okay. Hoo. I’ve got something in my eye. Sniffle.

One of the most unexpected perks about getting married is that I’ve acquired a whole lot of new amazing family members. One of my favorites, Jenna, recently posted something on her Facebook page that moved me so much that I had to share it with all of you.

“Took the kiddos to a busy park today and watched a mom lose her temper at her kiddo…in a loud yelling, arm yanking kind of way. Another mom walked up to her, put her hand in hers and said, “Hey, we’ve all been here.” Then the super young mama went from red-faced anger to tears. They hugged, and then another mom joined, and another, then a dad joined them, and another, then there were like 10 parents, in a group hug around her. I cried from the sidelines trying to keep a close eye on my little ones, but It was astonishing to see the diversity of parents show their compassion, rather than judgement. We need to rally around our vulnerable parents. Lift them up, and give them strength. This kid raisin’ business is hard. #bekind #ilovemycommunity #tucsonkindness

I’m not one to fill my blog with Facebookishness, but this really hit me in the heart place. In a time when we’re all feeling so polarized and divided and downright depressed, this kind of behavior gives me hope. It is still possible to love thy neighbor. We can support each other. Si se puede. We can be a force for good.

Just sit with that for a while. Let it sink in. Let it be your thought for the day. Namaste.

Group Hug

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Don’t Give Me Grief

Etymology fascinates me. Where do words and phrases come from? I’m constantly intrigued.

Just the other day, I heard someone say, “Don’t give me grief.”

Grief and its verb, grieving, are states that I’m all too familiar with. It’s a natural part of life to be devastated by the loss of someone you love. It’s also something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

But to say that grief can be given, as if you can box it up and hand it to someone, like the world’s most ill-conceived birthday present, is a bit of a stretch. It’s also kind of insulting to the griever.

No, grief is too personal for that. It’s not something that is presented to you, fully formed, from some outside source. It’s what you feel. It comes from your very heart and soul.

No two people grieve alike. There’s no standard timeline (and anyone who tries to force you into one is clueless and rude). There’s no right way or wrong way to grieve.

Your grief is all yours. You most likely don’t want it. You can’t be blamed for wishing it would go away and leave you alone. But grief is the state in which all of us get to reside, at one time or another. In all probability, you enter that realm without warning, and have to blaze your own trail, in hopes of coming out the other side, much altered, but hopefully stronger for it.

Grief is caused by the loss of someone. It strikes me as wrong to say that it is given to you by someone. After all, it’s not as if you can say, “return to sender.”

Don’t give me grief about this. I know what I’m talking about.

A box o' grief

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