Nowhere Near Three Cups of Tea but Neighbors Nonetheless


In 2003 an ice storm paralyzed the city where I still live, taking down power lines, leaving Lexington cold and dark.

At Briarwood, the government-subsidized housing complex I called home, branches bent under the weight of so much winter weather, trees seemed to hang their icy heads in shame, sorry for the light-less, tea-less inconvenience of it all.

The storm moved through the night of February 15th, so we woke up Sunday the 16th with 2 inches of ice coating sidewalks, streets, and trees.  Eventually, most of Lexington was without power, as the storm unexpectedly intensified as it moved through the state, leaving utility companies scrambling to repair power lines downed by fallen trees–trees that, in some instances, smashed cars and damaged roofs.

When I woke up in the wee hours of Sunday morning (2:30 according to my journal), the power was already out in my apartment.  At the time I lamented not having enough light to read or write by, not anticipating then that I would be without for 6 long days and nights to come.

Admittedly, this comes nowhere near the 13 day stretch we went without power in Haiti last summer, but at least in Port-au-Prince I’d grown accustomed to going without.  There we rarely had electricity for more than 8 hours a day, and many Haitians never have any.  They really deal with darkness at night, every night.

However, in the winter of 2003, I hadn’t been to Haiti; I was a newbie when it came to power outages.  And since I had only an electric stove, I had no means of even boiling water, no hot water for those strong cups of hot tea I used to keep me going, ones I could have used to keep me warm, as well.

With no electricity, it was also difficult to get news—no T.V.—no radio.  Eventually, I rounded up enough batteries to power my boom box and began hearing predictions that we might be without utilities for 3 to 7 additional days.

Officially, then, Briarwood was to have been evacuated—residents sent to shelters nearby that generated enough power to keep the heat going and lights on.  Some residents went to stay with family, but for most Lexingtonians, local relatives were also doing without, unless they had managed to secure an hotel room, all of which were booked in the city and surrounding areas once it became clear Lexington could remain cold and dark for days, if not weeks to come.

However, unofficially, many residents remained at Briarwood, especially those with pets, as no animals were welcome at shelters.  To accommodate these folks, the management, maintenance staff, and younger, able-bodied neighbors like myself pitched in, making sandwiches and coffee, which we delivered door to door.  I don’t remember how we made the coffee, especially for so many people, but I have some vague recollection of Terry, the maintenance supervisor securing a small generator that produced enough power to fuel a few of these endeavors.

The second floor craft room in the building where I lived (one I’ve written about before) was a hub of activity carried out in semi-darkness, even during daylight hours, since the room had only one small window.  There we gathered in a spirit of strong, if dimly lit, camaraderie, sharing food we knew we’d lose without refrigeration.  Some residents with grills on their balconies even managed to roast meats that began thawing in freezers—meat that would definitely rot if not eaten—hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken, more and more a carnivore’s delight as the week wore on.

However, with no means of producing heat, our apartments became colder and colder.  Thawing meat meant increasingly freezing temperatures in my living room, until on day four of our ordeal, I was wearing five shirts, three pair of sweat pants, and three pair of socks.  By day five, I was officially miserable.  With no natural light in my bathroom, I struggled to brush my light by candle light and began to crave a long hot bath—not to mention a decent cup of tea.  I lament in my journal about being unable to boil water, even to heat it warm enough so tea would steep before cooling in my increasingly cold, dark kitchen.

But just as the dim half-light was becoming a way of life, power returned late on our 6th day of doing without.

And even if the local utility companies had taken longer than we liked to get things up and going, even if I hadn’t had a single cup of tea, we residents of Briarwood had gotten along.

We’d played board games—Monopoly and Clue.  We’d fed one another, helped one another, drank coffee instead of tea.

We emerged a stronger community than we’d been before the storm stranded us together on those dark and icy February nights.

We cared.  We shared.  We became neighbors all over again.

Blogs Go Ghandi


Blogging is about community.  It’s about sharing and interacting and telling our stories.  It’s about friendship and honesty and all that’s good about people meeting people.  Blogging is about change, about language launched into action.  It’s about hope, about faith, and sometimes even about love.

So it’s happened in the past week, since I’ve been recognizing Mental Health Awareness Month, two bloggers have visited my site, two women who have fabulous and important blogs about mental health that put Ghandi’s imperative into action—they are “the change” many “want to see in the world.”

Sandy Sue’s “A Mind Divided” explores what it means to live with bipolar disorder and uses mixed media art to image its message of hope in the midst of struggle. Just the other day Sandy wrote about the poverty that often accompanies mental illness, about having to choose between meals and medication, since sometimes she can’t afford both.  She rightly suggests that those who say money can’t buy happiness . . .

. . .  aren’t considering those of us who walk to the grocery store when we don’t have enough money to get gas for the car.  Or who simply stay home, because funds for the groceries aren’t there, either.

Reminding us that “in all the ways that matter, money does buy happiness,” Sandy focuses a light on an ugly underside of mental illness, the poverty that often prevents patients, no longer able to work, from getting the medications they need and sometimes even food to eat.

However, “Suicide Ripple” delivers an even more sobering message—that, indeed, some don’t live long enough to go without medication or become hungry, because a hard, cold fact remains: mental illness kills.  Begun by the friend of a bipolar-diagnosed woman, who committed suicide in January of this year, “Suicide Ripple” is about

the effects such a suicide has on a family, a community, even people who didn’t know the person who completed suicide. This one act by one individual causes a ripple effect that can reach hundreds of people all over the country, even the world.

 The writer hopes her blog will prevent others from ending their lives, showing the impact such deaths have on loved ones left behind, as well as comfort the survivors themselves, creating a community of support.

The bottom line is this—social media has massive impact, affects the way we think about ourselves and the communities we’re part of.  As such, blogs should be used to lessen isolation, loneliness, depression and despair.  If blogging can create the very thing so many suicide victims lack, the very thing that drives them to end their lives and hurt the ones they love, if blogs can build community, create caring environments where sharing can be safely and anonymously undertaken, then  more mental health professions should exploit this potential, and many more who live with mental illness should tell their stories, talk about their struggles, share the hope and joy, peace and comfort that come with recovery.

May more of us use our blogs to affect change.  As Ghandi so wisely advised, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Piecing and Pasting: Re-Membering (Part 2)


It’s the forgetting I remember most.  The fact of forgetting.  The past is fuzzy for me, something that will make memoir difficult.

So, for me, re-membering will partly be a process of re-constructing and re-assembling the story, piecing and pasting.  Largely, this is due to trauma.  Trauma around growing up in a dysfunctional family whose front door was broken down by the FBI on way too many occasions.  Trauma around having a mental illness that at times disconnected me from reality and the people I love.

However, I have a strategy for doing this detective work, because I, clearly, need to research and document the parts of my life I can’t recall.

So today I’ll outline the most obvious steps to take in reconstructing both the story about my father’s connection to organized crime and the one about my mental illness—what amounts to a 20 year struggle to win (and sometimes seemingly lose) the battle against bipolar disorder.

Though I don’t know that my family is entirely comfortable with my writing about my father, who, in fact, died in 1981 (when I was still a teenager), I plan to do the following to document my dad’s story:

  1.  File a “Freedom of Information” act, so I can access my father’s FBI file.
  2.  Search news paper indexes to locate articles that were published about my father in the Pittsburgh Press and Pittsburgh Post Gazette during the 1960s and 70s.
  3. Access transcripts of court proceedings, so I can understand why several grand juries indicted my dad and can appreciate the nature of my father’s testimony in court proceedings against him.

And in order to reconstruct the bipolar narrative, I plan to:

  1.  File for copies of in-patient medical records, so I can review notes taken by doctors and nurses during my many hospital stays.
  2. Request copies of notes kept by doctors and therapists during out-patient treatment.  (Some of this I’ve already done.)
  3. Review journals kept from the time I was 15 until the present.  I wrote a lot during the years I was sick.  And though I don’t recall everything about that time, the journals recorded much of what I don’t remember.
  4. Watch video tapes of several years’ worth of out-patient and in-patient therapy.   This will be an invaluable source of information about my symptoms, my behavior, my thoughts and feelings at the time.  (This first involves having the videos transferred to DVDs, so I can bring them back to Haiti.  Frankly, the thought of watching this material terrifies me.  I can’t imagine what it will be like to see myself so sick.  I tried to watch one video a couple of years ago, but had to stop.  It was too painful.)

As I lay out this agenda, I want you to be assured, also, that I am well these days.   No one would ever know I had ever been sick or still carry this diagnosis.  In fact, when I’ve shared this information with folks in recent years, they’ve been shocked. 

My partner can certainly see how moody I remain.  I’m not always easy to live with.  As Sara says, when I feel something, my emotions fill the entire house.  I still hallucinate at times, but you would never know.  I’ve learned to manage the symptoms that remain, the ones that still break through despite the medication.

I hope some of you will help by holding me accountable with regard to the strategy outlined above.  Renee over at “Life in the Boomer Lane” recently posted a two-part series on memoir writing (something you should check out by clicking here and here).  But in the second of those posts Renee suggests assembling a supportive group of friends to keep oneself on track during the process of writing a memoir.  (So, I hope some of you will be willing to “support” me with periodic kicks in my memoir-writing ass.)

Thanks to all of you who read my blog.  Please know how much I appreciate your on-going support.  You all have given me the courage, the faith in myself as a writer, to finally take on this task I’ve been avoiding for years.

Peace to each of you and, as always, hugs from here in Haiti,

Kathy

Re-Membering the Past is Not an Easy Task


And for me it is, indeed, a matter of re-assembly.  Sorting and piecing , cutting and pasting. 

(So, today I have a confession to make.)

From the beginning, I’ve wanted this blog to be an avenue into memoir, since, in many ways, the story of my past is far more interesting than the narrative that is now.  And, in fact, the most significant “event horizons” in my life happened a long time ago.

I know that may be hard to believe, as the life Sara and I have lead over the past several years has been an exciting one—taking me to places like Bangkok, Hanoi, New Delhi, Port-au-Prince.

But in many ways to travel backward in time is the bigger challenge—more over-whelming, more frightening, yes, but also more meaningful, and perhaps even profound.

The story of how I’ve gotten here—how I’ve gotten “now” is one that must be told.  And how I’ve gotten here involves telling at least two stories, requires that I follow two narrative threads.  (There’s actually three but only two I’m even close to comfortable sharing now.)

The first is the story of my father’s involvement with organized crime and the second is the story of my twenty-year struggle with bipolar disorder.

Neither of these is easy to tell.  And honestly I’m afraid.

I still intend to write about Haiti.  I still intend to write about the “now” that is the life I share with Sara on this troubled island.  In fact, I believe the struggles Haiti faces nationally are not dissimilar to the personal challenges I’ve endured.  My story and the story of Haiti both involve sickness and corruption, oppression, endurance, even hope.

In the coming days and weeks I’ll outline my strategy, share my goals, my hopes, my fears.

I don’t know how to tell this story.  I don’t know where to begin.  I feel swallowed by the enormity of the task, dwarfed by it.

So, I’ll pray for peace—and if you’re a praying person, please offer your own prayer; if you’re not, please say you care, please say you’ll share.

I still need that massive infusion of grace.  I still need that holy yes.

She Sheltered Me (In the Shelter of One Another, Part 2)


 

Today I’d like to welcome my friend and fellow writer Mindy Shannon Phelps to “Reinventing the Event Horizon.”  Mindy’s  guest post is also about “sheltering,” a topic explored in yesterday’s poem and one inherent to the recovery effort here in Haiti.  Mindy’s narrative negotiation of this issue–an event horizon of its own–is stunningly poised and powerfully moving.  (Mindy’s bio is below and her post “She Sheltered Me” just below that.  Mindy will personally respond to comments, so feel free to ask questions.) 

A journalist by training, Mindy Shannon Phelps is a project management and communications specialist.

Over the past 17 years, her clients have ranged from Habitat for Humanity 
International and the US Department of Justice to the FEI World Equestrian Games and the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship, which she launched in 2007.  As a consultant, she focuses primarily on not-for-profit organizations.

As a wife and mother, she says she is humbled by the grace and love of her two daughters and husband, who encourage her to “write it down.” She does write – prose and poetry – and she is an editor, as well.

Her maxim: “Woman hath no greater satisfaction than editing someone else’s copy.”

________________________________________________________________

She Sheltered Me

It was the spring of 2004 in one of the worst years – work wise – of my life. I had been hired to transform a well-known non-profit organization from an affiliate of the national group to a state-only organization.  The group’s mission was completely embraceable – justice and fairness for all – but the group was hamstrung by about 60 long-time stakeholders – board members and advisors and founders – who each decided to be my boss. I also had an entrenched staff that I simply could not manage.  My associate director made Machiavelli seem like a decent person.

I could not win for losing. 

One morning, on the drive to work, I stopped at Starbucks and stood in line behind a very odd person.  She was very colorful.  A black lady whom you could immediately recognize as being from Africa or the Caribbean.  Not used to the chill March weather.  Bright knit cap and scarf. Bangles and rings and clothing that seemed to surround, rather than actually fit, her body. Sneakers and thick socks. Carrying a knapsack and a small pair of bongo drums, she was about to beg the barista for coffee for one dollar. Before she got to the counter, she turned around to me and told me I was a “rainbow child” and that I blessed her with my smile. 

She turned to the counter and the barista refused her request.

She hurried out the door. I was troubled that I did not quickly step in and get her some coffee. But I could see that she frightened the clerk and the customers. And she, herself, was frightened.  So I got my own coffee and went on my little way.

She walked across the street and I overheard her asking for directions to Main Street. I really wanted to pick her up and debated with myself through a light change, then crossed lanes and stopped and offered a ride. 

We sat for a minute and chatted and she explained how she had traveled from Jamaica to live with her sister – had sold $2000 worth of jewelry that she makes – and her sister had taken her money. My passenger was headed to the Hyatt Regency downtown to stay the night.  Her sister had a reservation. 

You know, I like to think I at least try to take people at face value. But I’m just as shallow as they come, really.  I wasn’t sure I believed this woman’s story. Making it even more difficult were comments that interspersed her narration, such as, “but, you know, I am not worried because God takes care of me.  We are all His children and He loves us.  I used to be a rainbow but now I am here.” I was with her on God’s love but the rainbow metaphor was beyond my ken.

Then she told me something I had always believed. 

“We need to continually stay in prayer.” With that, she began reciting the Lord’s Prayer and I headed the car down the road.

When I got to Main Street, I pulled into a parking lot next to a bakery. I don’t know why I didn’t just take her all the way down to the Hyatt. It was as if I was dreaming and did not have control of the car. This is what she told me in that lot.

“God bless you.  Be on your guard. Satan has demons driving on the streets today.  You are under attack and you don’t know it.  You need to call on Michael. Do you know Michael, the archangel? He’s my angel and he will be your angel, too.  You are God’s child and He loves you. You and I will see each other soon in paradise. We’ll be so happy then!”

All of this, she repeats, several times.

I began to weep because she touched something I didn’t know needed comforting. My heart.

The lady from Jamaica had blessed me and she was of God; that I knew. And I think God was there in the car with us and so was Michael, the archangel.

Before she got out of the car, I fished into my wallet and gave her a fifty-dollar bill. It was my two-week “allowance.” I felt as if I were giving it to God.  

She cried when I handed it to her.

I never saw her again.

In the Shelter of One Another (Part 1)


“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”
— Irish proverb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If we don’t shelter one another, we are lost.  If we don’t shelter one another none of us has a home; none of us has heart, has peace, has rest.  If we don’t shelter one another, we are alone, alienated, adrift.

Believing this to be true, struggling to understand community and what it meant to care for one another, I wrote the prose poem below some years ago, wrote it in the voice of a woman who had the experience described:

 My apartment has a view of the city skyline

 A street lady keeps coming to visit me.  She’s looking for her son, leaves me notes.  I called the police.  They said to call if she comes again.  She hasn’t come again, but when she does come, she tries to get in.  

Of course, she can’t get in. 

She only rattles the door.

Would you have responded differently to the woman’s visitor?  What would you have said or done?

Tomorrow, in the spirit of these questions, I’ll bring you a guest post, written by my dear friend and fellow writer, Mindy Shannon Phelps.  Mindy’s post will further address this issue of “sheltering”–offering another voice of witness.

Hope you will come back tomorrow and listen to Mindy.  Let’s help her feel welcome!