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.

Linoleum Floors are More Than They’re Cracked up to Be


I heard someone say the other day that home is where your story begins.  It’s where we’re rooted, what grounds us in the present and gives us a history to remember.

I’ve been fascinated for years by the notion of place and the impact it has on who we become.  I’ve even oriented my composition classes around questions of space and place, exploring how who we are is so often affected by where we come from.

So it seems unsurprising then that I might orient my memoir about recovering from mental illness around similar concepts.  I’ve posted pieces about fearing homelessness, about my inability to afford housing in any remotely comfortable way, about wanting the hospital to be my home.  I even took this one step further yesterday when I mentioned now owning a home.             

However, an important part of this progression toward home ownership involved twice living in government housing—not a lovely place by any means—but not the housing horror folks often expect.

In June of 1998, I moved into Lakeland Manor—a government-subsidized, semi-high-rise for the elderly and disabled in Dallas, Texas.  I decided this move made sense when it became more and more difficult to afford the small, one bedroom apartment I leased on Northwest Highway.  I scraped and scavenged each month to pay the rent, making myself abide by outrageously restricted spending limits that may have reinforced patterns of neglect and denial I carried over from childhood.  The apartment at Lakeland Manor saved me more than $200 a month—what to me amounted to a small fortunate at the time.  The year before, I had told my therapist that if I could only make $100 more a month, I would feel rich.

I’d gotten to know a woman who owned a home in a neighborhood near the complex, and visiting her home, I’d noticed the place was not-so-bad.  In fact, my friendship with Jeanette impacted my decision to move, as I began to recognize the impact proximity might have on my recovery.

The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is not a small place.  My apartment was far from my therapist’s office in Plano—an expensive place to live, and I knew how not having a car kept me isolated, if I didn’t have friends nearby.  I had been fortunate to have my friend Ellen living in the complex on Northwest Highway.

I frankly adored Ellen.  She was my friend from Tulsa, my first openly lesbian friend, one who had also moved to Dallas for treatment purposes.  Ellen was witty, brilliant, creative—great fun to be around when she was sober or not psychotic.  Unfortunately Ellen’s efforts toward sobriety left her more psychotic, more often, and in some ways less available.

My move from Northwest Highway to Lakeland Manor had no conscious connection to Ellen’s decline, but tragically Ellen died suddenly shortly after my move, having visited my new apartment on only one occasion.  Ellen’s death devastated me.  There seemed no clear medical explanation for her dropping dead one afternoon in the parking lot of the apartment complex where we had lived.  But once Ellen was gone, I was relieved to have already moved.  I don’t imagine I could have tolerated living there with her gone.

This issue of proximity made one friend I met at Lakeland Manor enormously important, as I finally had a friend who was bright and creative living in the same building.  Elaine was a classical musician who played the French horn—an SMU grad who loved to laugh as much as I did.  Elaine had had a stroke a number of years back, as well as a kidney transplant, so her physical disability qualified her to live in the building.

Elaine was a friend in every sense of the word.  She was my age, came from a similar educational background, and was finally someone with whom I could socialize, without either transportation or finances being issues.

Except for Ellen, when I lived on Northwest Highway, none of my friends lived nearby.  Without transportation in a city like Dallas—especially when you don’t live in a particularly safe part of town—it’s logistically difficult to go out with friends after dark.  And given all the other battles I was fighting at the time, dealing with getting home after dark was more than I could manage—so mostly I stayed home.

However, I couldn’t afford to socialize either.  I couldn’t afford movies or going out to eat or shopping—activities most folks not fighting poverty enjoy.  This created a financial incongruity in almost every relationship—leaving me feeling isolated and alone. 

With Elaine, all of this changed.  Neither of us had any money—neither of us could afford to go out—but there were countless evenings when Elaine would come down to my apartment or I would go up to hers, so we could cook dinner together and watch T.V.  The meals were simple.  We ate lots of pasta. 

dinner with Elaine at my apartment, February 1999

I remember we spent Christmas of 1998 together.  It was icy outside.  We couldn’t go anywhere, but that didn’t matter.  We were friends, and we were together.  Ironically, I owed this friendship and the joy it provided to the fine folks at the Dallas Housing Authority.

So Lakeland Manor, government housing or not, was in many ways a relief to me, my apartment a retreat—a place I could finally comfortably afford.  Plus, since the rent was based on income, I never really needed to fear homelessness again. 

Home is where ones story begins, and the home I made at Lakeland Manor is one that ultimately allowed my recovery to take hold—grow roots—be strengthened.  I gained confidence while living there.  I felt good about myself and proud.

Yes, my apartment had roaches.  It has linoleum tile on the floor.  It was ugly. 

less-than-lovely linoleum floor

But I worked hard to make it feel like home, and quite honestly I loved it, linoleum and all.

So, home is where one’s story begins, humble as that home may be.

Variations on my America (Excuse the Stereotypes, Please)


My partner Sara and I visited Southern Georgia last week—a town called Americus–a place that’s stereotypically small town America–America  in miniature–a place that, for me, is about  friendship, service, and fabulous feasting!

For many years Sara’s belonged to a group of female friends who call themselves the Breakfast Club—an assortment of bright and talented women who at one time or another worked in the world of international NGOs but originally met for breakfast on Saturday mornings at a place in Americus, Georgia called Kings Restaurant.

When Sara and I got together 5 years ago, I was inducted into this group of omeletpancakebacon-eating women, whether I wanted to be or not.  And, I must admit, I’ve never laughed harder or louder than I have with these funny and fun-loving female friends.

Though I’d gathered with members of the Breakfast Club in a number semi-exotic locations, before last week I’d never visited Americus, the group’s original home—something Sara and I refused to tolerate any longer.

But Americus, Georgia’s bigger claim to fame is Habitat for Humanity—an international NGO founded 35  years ago by Millard Fuller, an organization that builds decent, affordable homes in close to 100 countries around the world—an organization I’ve worked with closely: having my university students help build houses locally in Lexington; volunteering personally with the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project in the Mekong; taking another group of writers to the slums of New Delhi where we worked with Habitat for Humanity India.

Habitat is an organization I’ve worked with around the globe, but one whose US home I’d also never seen—until last week.

(But I don’t want you to miss Americus either.)

So, today I offer a pictorial tour of Americus as I experienced it—a sleepy, Southern town of 17,000 near Plains, Georgia, still the home of former US president Jimmy Carter— in many ways a tour of stereotypical America in miniature.

First, the charming Victorian hotel, the 53 room Windsor, where we stayed, an image of Main Street, USA:

The Breakfast Club’s Saturday morning meal is now eaten at Granny’s Kitchen:

There a group of strong American women gather around one big table:

Later that evening we had dinner at Donna’s, a small ranch home common in American suburbs–something my non-American readers may never have visited.  Notice the mailbox:

We had a ball:

I also got to hug the famous peanut in Plains.  Remember, Jimmy Carter, who still lives there came from a family of peanut famers:

I discovered that one of the many buildings in Americus that houses Habitat for Humanity, the Rylander, used to be a car dealership.  Is there anything more stereotypically American than baseball, apple pie, and Chevrolet?

I also learned that Habitat for Humanity industriously and ecomically prints all of its own publications—a massive work ethic in operation at the Sheffield Center:

We extended out stay in Southern Georgia by visiting Savannah and the seashore on Tybee Island:

But the best part of visiting Georgia remains returning to Kentucky.

So–as Sara’s sabbatical at home will soon be ending and we will soon be moving on to another (yet unknown) international location, I’m reminded that the best part about being away always involves returning home.

Though I know my America is not the America of many, for me, home remains American— as narrow as that America may be.

So, please excuse the stereotypes; I’m just enjoying home.

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.”

Variations on Giving: a Friend’s Reflection on Lent


Disclaimer:   

Please know I do not allow Mindy to publish what she does below with any sense of comfort. In fact, I do so with fear and trembling, not wanting anyone to think, for a minute, that I believe the life Sara and I lead deserves Lenten comparison.   

Sara and I have chosen our path purposefully, but it, in fact, gives to us more that we give to others.  The sacrifice is reciprocal and then some, making our lives meaningful, challenging, sometimes even fun. 

 Please know the words below are those of a friend, a friend who has loved us for many years and may speak with a bit of bias—but a bias based in love.  As such, I am humbled and try to accept the gift with grace—acknowledging that though it may be too much, it’s a gift given from the heart.

 And the gift of love, the gift of grace, after all, is what the Lenten/Easter season is all about.  God only asks for our hearts and gives us grace in return.

 So thank you, my dear friend.  Thank you!

Dear Readers:
  
Kathy has taken the day off. 
  
While she finishes a myriad of tasks related to her move home to Kentucky, she let me talk her into publishing the following post I wrote about her and Sara.
 
This week Kathy is looking back and reevaluating the experience she and Sara have had in Haiti.  I hope this post will help them see how brave they’ve been.
  
I know I speak for many who have come to respect and admire these good people.  And though I speak about them in the context of Christianity, I believe good works are apparent in and of themselves, regardless of religion, creed or belief.
  
Kindest regards,
Mindy
 
_______________________________________________________________
 

As I reflect on Sara and Kathy and the lives they lead, I am reminded of the story in the Bible about the widow’s mite. “She gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford…she gave her all.” (Luke 21-4)

 The Jews had been instructed to give to the Temple and to the poor as part of their service to God. One day Jesus sat at the Temple and watched people putting money into the offering boxes. Some were rich and gave lots of money. Some gave money, but were unhappy about it. Then a poor woman, a widow, came up to the boxes.

The poor woman put two small coins in the offering box. The disciples with Jesus weren’t very impressed, but Jesus said this woman had given more than any other that day. How could that be? Jesus said it was because it was all she had.

 I reflect on the selflessness of my friends because they inspire me on this first day of Lent to “give my all.”

 I’m Episcopalian and have always observed Lent by giving up something for the 40 days or so that lead up to Easter and the celebration of the risen Lord. When I was a child, I was instructed not to give up something I disliked, like spinach, but to give up something I loved, like chocolate.

 The physical act of fasting is meant to remind us to allow the Spirit of God to reshape the way we think, act and live. I know this as an adult. As a child, it was just something we were expected to do.

 It was a practice that was meant to become a habit and, then, a life lesson.

 The apostle Paul explained the lesson very neatly in his letter to the Philippians:

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what.  Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human.  It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges.  Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death – and the worst kind of death at that – a crucifixion. (Philippians 2:5-8 – The Message)

 This is how Sara and Kathy live. They go from disaster to disaster, at great expense – professionally, emotionally, physically, psychologically – giving extravagantly what they can’t afford…giving their all.

 Now, I want Kathy to run this blog post and if she does, you must know that it’s because I’ve asked her to do it on my behalf. 

 Because I thank her and Sara for reminding me, in this season of Lent, to allow the Spirit of God to reshape the way I think, act and live not only by giving up something I love, but by giving my all.