Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Whistling past Christmas Past

Maybe your family will never be fit-for-prime-time or perhaps you've lost someone dear. It could be you've been laid off or diagnosed with an illness. You might be struggling with poverty, addiction or painful memories of Christmas past. For those of you who find Christmas difficult, I'm reposting an entry from several years back. I know how you feel.
Don't let the general merriment - and your lack of it - get you down. I'm thinking of you.

Let’s say her name is Adrianna. She’s wearing beige jeans and a thick patterned sweater, underneath a jacket. A natural blonde and even taller than me, she’s formidable and impressive looking, in a Celtic sort of way.

I’m sitting on the wooden bench outside the college’s metal shop. I’m shivering in the cold and smoking when she wanders over, hesitates a minute, and then sits at the other end of the bench and lights her own cigarette.

“Well,” she says, exhaling smoke and giving me a sideways glance, “I suppose I’d better be happy, seeing this is a happiness zone.” Her tone is ironic. Someone has stuck a neat, typed label to that effect on the back of the bench, and she tells me one of her friends pointed it out to her when she sat there last week. “I had the flu and I was burnt right out, and I hate this time of year. Right. The happiness zone.”

She’s a student, of course. I’ve seen her around. We’ve smiled or talked once or twice. But we don’t know each other.

I say that everybody’s burnt out right now. Tired, trying to finish studio work and study for exams. But it’s the remark about the season that grabs my attention.

There’s a comfortable silence for a minute and I tell her, “I hate this time of year too. And what’s worse is, one year someone gave me a Grinch head on a stick, and I felt like, fuck you, go ahead, knock yourself out, just stop making it mandatory for me to join you.” She nods agreement.

We smoke our cigarettes for a minute and then I turn to look at her. “I’m not asking what or anything, but is there a reason – I mean is there an emotional trigger or a memory that makes this a bad time for you?” There is for me, and I’m curious whether it’s true of most people who find Christmas a struggle.

She thinks for a minute. “I grew up poor,” she says, “I mean, people around here mostly can’t relate to what I mean when I say ‘poor.’ A lot of the winter, we ate potatoes and salt fish and game because there was nothing else.” She hunches forward.

“My mom is fifty…she’s an artist and she just went back to school and she’s trying to raise two teenage boys and she hasn’t got any money. I used to be better at it when I was young. You know, I pretended better.” She mimes opening a present. “Oh! Slippers! Thank you! I’d be able to put on the surprised, pleased look as if it was the big present. As I got older I didn’t do so well.” She sighs. “I invested a lot of energy in being negative about Christmas. I’m trying to stop.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“But you know,” she continues, “a couple years ago was a good Christmas. When I went home for the holidays, my mom said, ‘I have to make a decision. I have $200.00. Should I put oil in the tank, or spend it on food for Christmas?’ I thought about it and I told her, ‘buy food.’ So she put $50.00 into the tank and we bought a bottle of Rum and cooking supplies.

We sat in the kitchen all day, drinking rum and cooking, with the oven going, heating the house up.” She’s smiling now. “And the next morning – my mom’s room is in the attic, so there’s no insulation. It’s so cold I’m sleeping with a hat on – we wake up and she says, ‘Are you okay, dear?’ and I say, ‘I’m just fine,’ and I can see my breath as I answer her. But it was good, laying there under the covers, talking. And there was no drunk there to spoil it. My brothers got ski-jackets – the really good kind - and all day, they ran around saying they couldn’t notice the cold because the jackets were so warm. It was a good Christmas.”

She tells me her mom is studying to be a therapist. I’m not familiar with the type of therapy, so she explains that it has to do with integrating the different personalities we have. “They use affirmations,” she tells me. “I’m not altogether on side about my mother’s therapy.” Wry grin. “But sometimes I use them and maybe they help. How they do it is, I’d say, I am an intelligent woman. She is an intelligent woman. And then you look in the mirror and say, You are an intelligent woman.” I nod.

“I think most types of therapy help people, some of the time.” It’s vague and noncommittal, but as close as I can come to what I really think. She seems to understand me.

“So,” she says, with a big grin, as we get up to go inside, “I am not a nasty, cynical Christmas hater. She is not a nasty, cynical Christmas hater. You are not a nasty cynical Christmas hater.” We both start to laugh.

“What’s your name?”

“Adrianna.” She adds, pointedly, as if she’s a little insulted that I don’t know, “I’ve been here for several years.”

“Linda.” I reach to shake her hand and look in her eyes, “Yeah. But we’ve never really met.”

I am not a nasty, cynical Christmas hater, I think to myself as I head into the office grinning hugely. She is not

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What will you be doing when you're 80?

"The degree of Civilization in a society can be judged by entering the prisons"
-Fyodor dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead

As far as staying young goes, there is no surgical procedure, no vitamin, diet or exercise program that can beat passionate involvement doing something you love. Jim Chapman is heading for his 81st birthday. He's retired, which in Jim's case, means he only works 16 days sometimes.

Jim works with and for prisoners and ex-prisoners (or as he calls the latter, "newly returned citizens). An introduction to a book he's writing compares the situation of a newly released person with that of an Untouchable in India. Finding housing and a job, for an ex-convict is not just daunting - it approaches impossibility.

When someone has served their time and wants nothing more than to rejoin society and never see the inside of a prison again, they face employer policies, laws, rules, restrictions and societal attitudes that nearly guarantee that they have no access to shelter or work. Think of it: In the USA, as of January 2010, there were 1,404,053 people under the jurisdiction of state prison authorities. Most of these people serve their sentences and are released, so what does it mean (to them and to the rest of society) if they can't find shelter and have no means to make a living? What "degree of civilization" is implied by the fact that once a sentence is served, a person is punished by having the very means of survival pushed out of their reach?

Jim is one of those people you won't see on the news. One of the many people who don't talk about what's wrong - but stand up and do what they can:

By Chinta Strausberg

If you’re late for one of attorney James P. Chapman’s classes, you may think you’ve walked into a movie shoot because it is a reality check for returning citizens who may not know how to sell themselves to prospective employers.

Since 1954, Chapman was a trial and Appellate lawyer, and he has had a burning passion to help returning citizens for decades.
But his real joy is working in the communities with men and women in prison and those who are coming from prison. When asked why bother with returning citizens and those incarcerated, he said: “I don’t know. “All I know is that if there is a higher power…if there is an angel, it touched me…. It is the most fulfilling thing I’ve every done and I can’t tell you why,” Chapman said.

When I walked into his classroom, sponsored by the Cook County President’s Office of Employment and Training (P.O.E.T.) that is held each Friday from 10:30 a.m. to noon in Room 2260 of the 69 West Washington building, Chapman was directing two students engaged in a personnel role-playing skit.

One student pretended to be a would-be employer at a Target store looking for an inventory control clerk the other was the applicant. When the “employer” asked if the applicant had ever been arrested, the jock job seeker quipped, “Yes, for racketeering.”
Chapman cringed at his answer and grabbing his hair warned the students: “You never tell a prospective employer that you were once arrested for racketeering” which he said could mean he was once involved in an act or threat of murder, kidnapping, arson, robbery extortion, drugs, embezzlement and the list goes on. In the participant’s case, it turned out he had custody of his child and was trying to make the mother pay him for child support. Technically, his actions amounted to racketeering but Chapman taught them how to explain these acts in a softer and more acceptable way. Myron Colvin, communications manager for P.O.E.T., played the role of a prospective employer with a volunteer from the class. The role-playing continued under the watchful eye of Chapman. “Some words are too harsh,” he warned.

Chapman teaches a course entitled: “Life Transformation Through Communication” which is based on an interactive program where the participants speak, act and talk while learning the dynamics of effective communication. However, it is more than just speaking or writing.
“It’s how you enroll people in what you want…to touch, move and inspire people,” said Chapman. “Communications is much more than one of understanding your audience. It’s also how you speak differently to different audiences,” he explained.

Chapman said those returning from prison often are prevented from getting meaningful employment. “The attitudes of the public of potential employers are so negative based on false publicity, a kind of hysteria about dealing with ex-prisoners particularly those convicted of crimes of violence that barriers are set up to meaningful employment.”
Part of the course, he explained, is dealing with those issues and how you can convince a prospective employer that even though they have been in prison they are now a changed person, prepared to work hard and will be an honest and good employee. “This is very challenging,” Chapman admitted.

For the past five-years, Chapman has taught this course at the Stateville Correctional Center (located in Crest Hill, Illinois) he described as a “serious, old maximum security prison where people are doing very long sentences.”
There, he teaches 25 men once a week. “Even people in prison who are doing long sentences begin to learn how it is to have a more meaningful way of talking with other men in prison, with their families with people they are trying to get help from in the community,” he said....
Personally, I'd be thrilled to find something half as meaningful to do with the rest of my life. And when the roll call of daily evils is delivered on the evening news, I like to think about James Chapman and all the people like him who are, against staggering odds, working to change things.

Monday, October 11, 2010


Picture this: a poster showing a skinny, mean-looking cat glaring over its shoulder with the caption,

“I’m out of estrogen and I have a handgun. Any questions?”

It cracked me up when I saw it years ago. In the same spirit, I laughed at the quote below, which I copied and pasted from a friend’s FaceBook page onto my page.

“"Studies show that if a woman is menstruating or menopausal, she tends to be more attracted to a man with duct tape over his mouth, a spear lodged in his chest, with a bat up his ass, while he is on fire."

I laughed. A lot of women laughed. And one lone man commented, “Wow. Chilling.”

Then I began to think it over. It’s harsh. It is chilling. I began to wonder why I thought it was okay to post it. Why we women found such a brutal joke funny. And then it occurred to me - men have been putting us down with comments about our screwy hormones for years. Any time a woman is irrational or angry or emotional, she runs the risk of being asked if it’s her time of the month. And of course, sometimes it is. But sometimes we have good solid cause and it’s damned insulting when someone hints that you’re dealing with a bout of temporary insanity.

I wanted for a minute or so to explain this to the man who commented. I would have said, “You notice this is not really about men. It’s about how we feel sometimes and it's exaggerated for effect. There’s no direct slur here.”

I thought about what author Eckhart Tolle calls, “The Pain Body.”

If you’ve ever investigated complimentary healing practices of any kind, you know that energy is only invisible to the human eye. Other than that, it’s as real as the keyboard I’m typing on. It can even be photographed using Kirlian photography…colors and light surrounding every inch of us and extending outward.

Even the most skeptical of us can understand that energy is felt. You get it if you've ever been in a meeting where one person is really angry and found yourself getting tense and upset too, even when nothing about that person’s mood is personal to you. You get it if you've seen how your mood can even out when you’re around someone who is centered and happy - or you've come home from a boisterous social event feeling like you need to retreat quietly in a nice dark closet and let the rattling in your head subside.

We may not touch someone else or talk to them – but that does not stop an energy connection, for better or worse.

Tolle claims that as well as having pain bodies we’ve grown from our personal hurts, group pain bodies are passed down, generation to generation, too. For example, races and religious groups who have been oppressed have a shared pain body. Women, after generations of patriarchy, have a shared pain body. That is why such a cutting joke is funny. Darkness buried, is darkness festering. A joke, even a very sharp-edged joke with a graveyard underside can alleviate the festering.

Laurence Fishburne said, in an interview on The Actors Studio, that he once acted in a theater troupe called, “Kill Whitey.” It’s rage toppled on its side and turned into a joke.

Is it politically correct? No. Is there enormous pain underneath? Yes. But these kind of jokes, the incorrect, visceral and dark are escape valves. I winced when I heard Fishburne say that.

But then I laughed.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Keeper of the day

I'm sitting in the courtyard on Granville and hail my friend as he drifts by today. "How's married life?" I get to ask this because it's his turn to get hammered with that inane question and I'm not letting him off the hook.

"About the same as single life." He and his girlfriend have been together for a few years now. We talk a bit about the wedding and then bitch about work until his ever-present cell phone rings. He picks up and I pantomime that I'm late and have to go back inside and as leave, I catch, "I'm not sure if I'll be there then, I have to pick my son up..."
Before it was "My girlfriend's son" or the boy's name. Now it's "my son."
Suddenly I'm tearing up and there's a lump in my throat.

My friend had a good father.

That's all. Except - here's to good men and good fathers - and their sons, who become good fathers too.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Hermit

Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I'm a bit of a loner. More socially active people sometimes read this behavior as negative, sad - It must be lonely or mean I don't care for people much. And that isn't so.

Some of us just need to go to the mountain on a regular basis. Some of us need to leave the clatter and incessant buzzing of the world behind in order to think clearly, to stay grounded. I'm introspective by nature and need time and quiet to hear my own thoughts. Stuff my schedule with too much face time and I begin to feel like a pinball careening wildly out of control.

When my time is my own, it's not unusual for me to have a three or four day run when I don't hear a human voice. The quiet outside seeps inside. It leaves room for whatever the universe wants to toss my way.

This morning on Granville Street, it tosses me a present.

I spot Charley in his usual spot outside the Split Crow Pub. Short and sturdy as a fire-plug, a hard history imprinted in the lines in his face, Charley is one of my morning beacons. His presence lends a kind of reassuring certainty to my day. He and I have been smiling good morning at each other forever but we've never spoken. For some reason, today, I break the routine.

"Mornin,'Charley! Let's hope this fog breaks, huh?" Charley grins and nods.
"Yep. Kinda damp, ain't it."

We stand side by side, smoking our cigarettes in companionable silence and then Charley asks,

"Do you like to read?"
"Why yes. I read all the time."

Charley fishes a crumpled photocopied pamphlet out of his pocket. I wonder, before I open it, if maybe Charley is born again and I happen to look like I need saving.

"It's my wife's," he explains, "she made about a thousand of 'em."

I open and read. It's poetry, painfully, clumsily rhymed. But the first one is for Charley. It begins:

This is the man I love
Who is above
All the rest of the men I had in my life
For this I am proud to say I am his wife

"Sounds like you have a happy marriage. This is nice, what she wrote for you." Charley beams.

"Yep. Nine years," Her first husband, he beat her something awful." I let that sink in.

"Well," I say, "maybe the only good thing to come from being with a bad man is that you appreciate a good one a hundred times more..." Charley nods and his expression brightens.

"We comin' up on ten years in the fall," he tells me, "I got her a surprise she never going to expect."

"Okay, now you have to tell!"

"I got her a $14,000 diamond ring." He beams. He looks like he's still shocked at his own extravagance. I gape at him, suitably gob-smacked. That could be half a year's pay or thereabouts.

"Well, Charley - you have to show me the poem she writes after that anniversary."

With that, I admit I'm late for work and we both head off to our respective jobs.

Hours later, I'm still hugging the memory. It's not about the quantity of contact. It's all about the quality.

Who could be lonely with gifts like that?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Ruby Dee Prayer

I wake up this morning feeling like I am made of badly-cobbled spare parts. It is the kind of morning that metaphorically misses a step on the staircase and flails gracelessly to regain balance. The kind of morning when unremembered dreams have clung to the edges of consciousness just out of the grasp of recall.

it's as if I had swallowed gravel along with my morning cereal...as if emotions had lodged in my stomach, undigestable, a little gritty and sharp around the edges.

I try to reason it out. The first thing that comes to mind is that I was one of many who disappointed a new Native American friend by remaining silent when she commented on a recent injustice. Even though my subsequent apology is graciously accepted, my mind can't let it go. I keep thinking, "All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing." Or good women. Doing nothing, facing nothing, is the great sin, in my estimation, of the middle class. Figuring all of it is someone else's problem is a universal form of denial. To watch the news, to read the newspaper is to drown in bad news. It's overwhelming.

So what do we do? We good men and women who are disturbed and saddened by injustice, racism, pollution, war? What do we do when we realize that just meditating on all of it, just holding positive thoughts is not enough. What do we do when we see, at the same time, angry measures create stronger polarities that drown the voice of reason and erase all hope of cooperation?

In a time of escalating tumult and chaos, from the economic to the environmental to political - what is the responsibility of "good" men and women? It's our world. And the scary thought occurs to me that if we don't participate in change, we deserve the lack of change we get.

So, when an opportunity arises to speak or act - next time I'll stand and be counted.

And I'll accept the gravelly discomfort of this morning with gratitude. It's an answer to the Ruby Dee prayer: "God, make me so uncomfortable that I will do the very thing I fear."

Friday, January 15, 2010


We walk by him twice. First, going to lunch at the Carleton House and then coming back.
"Spare change?"
He's tall and achingly thin, with a scruffy beard and beat out clothes.
Krista says, "I'm sorry, I have nothing."
I say, barely looking, "nosorry."

Later, when I run out to pick up coffee at Sam's Macchiato, I pass him again, and he asks again.
"nosorry," I say. But a foot or two later, it bothers me. How the two words have grown into one, and how I don't even look.

"Wait." I fumble in my purse and pull out a one and two dollar coin.
"Thanks," he says. His smile is genuine and a little shy. "You know, I was schizophrenic all my life," he tells me, "and I've got new meds now. I used to think people were talking about me all the time. And now that's gone away."

He sighs happily, "Reality," he says, "is so much quieter and easier."

"I'm so glad for you." I look into his eyes and smile and speak the words one at a time.