Friday, January 31, 2014

Empty Nest

The year my daughter went off to college we received a card at Christmas asking how my husband and I were dealing with “empty nest.”

I remember wondering, What does that mean?

The four years Grace was away in college were some of the hardest I’ve ever gone through. We were extremely lucky she was accepted, beyond even what we could imagine, into an excellent school. And with all the scholarships and grants, there was a ridiculously small amount we had to pay. Yet I was stricken with terror: What if I failed!?

Prior to this we’d taken a couple overseas trips (see European Schedule) where we did crazy things to get the money to travel. I remember once my husband and I submitted to an MRI for medical research. I took on cleaning jobs and made cinnamon rolls and sold them for a dollar. There had been a small smoke fire in a senior’s room and I got hired to clean the walls. I practically had to peel the goldenrod colored nicotine off the walls along with corners of black smudge that turned out to be mold rather than smoke damage.

Anyway, to come up with $3,000 in three years was a miracle. So to come up with about ten grand a year made me double over in doubt. Yet we did it. Between Grace getting work study, working summers, and me selling fruit at a farmer’s market we were able to feed the college machine.

This is called stress.

The only thing that helped was a daily dose of YouTube cats playing the piano and the ever favorite: babies laughing. Seriously. 

Since her graduation last spring I’ve had breathing space. Room to let go and begin to think about other things.

Such as the overwhelming loneliness of an empty nest.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

My Book of Sorrows

Several of my friends have kids with Autism or Asperser’s. It used to be caused by Moms called Refrigerator Moms because they were cold and unresponsive, then we blamed vaccinations, and now . . .? I’d like to think its corn syrup. This is how to start a rumor.

Or maybe things just happen. Out of our control.

I’ve always felt empathy for these children. The quirky ones with idiosyncrasies. The collector, the hoarder, the obsessive kid addicted to Legos.

When I was 8 or 9 I got on a kick, cutting the vital statistics, records of births and deaths, out of the newspaper, and taping them into a notebook. I was looking for patterns. I created a graph—probably I called it research. Who knows what I was trying to prove. Perhaps I wondered what the ratio of boys to girls was or what day of the week produced the most births or even the most fertile month.

Anyway, I kept track of this until my mother swept up my notebooks—which to her looked like clutter—and threw them out.

If this was the only time it happened I would understand, but my mother had a pattern of tossing notebooks I’d written in or sheaves of paper stacked on my desk in my room. Somehow her moments of frustration always ended in her “cleaning” up poetry or novels or prose projects I’d been working on.

As a kid I had a feeling that many things were out of my control.

After vital statistics I graduated to another kind of clippings—these I hid away, tucked in between the pages of a Girl Scout Handbook. (I loved the newspaper. It was a world outside of my world. Just last week I found a newspaper in the dining room and cut articles out of it. It felt like old times.)

It started randomly with a news story about a poor mom living in downtown Dayton in a slum house. She’d put her baby down to sleep at night and woke up to find rats biting her infant. There was a picture of a child sitting on her lap its face swollen and mottled. You see the incident is still engraved in my memory.

House fires. Young girls kidnapped and found later dead. Car wrecks—a group of nine teens killed on the way to a dance. I buried the Girl Scout handbook behind my shoes in the back of the closet. Sometimes at night before bed I’d pull them out and read through them. It was my book of sorrows.

Things happened, beyond my control. Each tragedy confirmed that.

I still have this particular scrapbook. And, lately, I’ve begun to think about looking for it in our storage unit—mixed in with all the bits and pieces I’ve saved from my daughter, her schoolwork, notes she wrote to me, and the little stories she used to write.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Forty Below Wind Chill

It’s cold days like these, the coldest of days, that it makes sense to me why people in the olden days didn’t bathe or change clothes very much.

As a little girl I used to sit in the bathroom, the warmest room in the house, on top of the heat register and read books.

It’s days like these, the coldest of days, that I’m nostalgic for that warm spot.

Guess how many layers I'm wearing inside and I'll send you a FREE PDF of Freeze Frame: How to Write Flash Memoir

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The New Jim Crow

As I mentioned in my last blog I’ve been reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. 

I am aware that this book has caused much controversy. Many people are inflamed alone by the title. As a lawyer she is tying the increase in mass incarceration to the theory that black and brown minorities are the target of intentional, racially motivated profiling.


I’ve seen this on the streets of Uptown, especially with the residents I work with at Cornerstone community Outreach, a homeless shelter on the northside of Chicago.

All too often I hear from our local politicians that they are concerned about crime. I’ve come to recognize that “community safety” is code for clearing the streets of unwanted people such as the poor, homeless. That’s one of the reasons our alderman has removed benches at bus stops. Really? Is that why I see the elderly waiting, sitting uncomfortably on fire hydrants—because someone is afraid the homeless will use the benches to spread out and take a nap? Is safety really the issue when you wanted to forbid the Salvation Army from handing out hot soup at a corner near the park. Thank God that didn’t work. There was considerable blow-back from the community and from social agencies working in the area.

In the New Jim Crow safety and keeping the public safe is impetus behind legislation in the 1980s that ramped up stop and frisk, unwarranted searches and basically unleashed the police force to target minorities in the name of the War on Drugs.

Again in Uptown I see all this at work. We operate a program for homeless men where they sleep at an area church, in the gymnasium and then in the morning make the trek back to CCO for daytime drop-in, meals, showers, resources such as computers for job search and making appointments for housing, health, etc. Not only are the men routinely stopped and asked for identification, so also is the CCO staff. One hundred percent of the time we’re talking people of color.

One of the clients I work with at the shelter told me he rarely gets hassled. I asked him what his secret was. “I always carry a bag. I act like I’m returning from shopping. Even if I’m not carrying take-out or been to Target, it just looks that way.”

I guess consumers are less suspicious, less likely to be vagrants.

Hearing the complaints of staff and residents is pretty surreal—the reasons why they are stopped. Sometimes over the most ridiculous of pretenses. But the one constant is that they happen to be of color. I for one am interested in reading more about Michelle Alexander and what if any changes are being made in the justice system as a result of her writing this book.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Setting Prisoners Free

I’d like to give a shout out to a fellow blogger and a GREAT humanitarian Jeremy Nicholls
Jeremy Nicholls of Cornerstone Community Outreach in Uptown received the Chicago Alliance’s Fund Manager of the Year Award (Chicago Alliance Photo).
Jeremy blogs at Setting Prisoners Free where he usually writes about the work he and others are doing at Cornerstone Community Outreach—the shelter where I wolunteer—and the difficulties and prejudices the residents face in getting housing.

This goes along with some recent reading. I’m about a chapter into The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and as a lawyer/writer/attorney/author she has a compelling argument of systematic injustice against African-Americans. Stacking the tables against men especially. I’ve seen it for myself. Young men who should be sophomores or just finishing up college—already have racked up a felony. And, you hate to say it—it’s too late.

Man, what a waste.

They can’t get housing. They can’t get jobs. And, in some states they have lost their right to vote. Anyway resources most people have to pull themselves out of a mess have been blocked for these guys—and they aren’t even in jail anymore! But their lives are already locked up.
Anyway, here is a link and a snippet of Jeremy’s blog to get you going—become a follower!

I often get asked, "what's your secret? how is Cornerstone housing so many people?" And to add that; many of Chicago's chronically homeless population approach me, saying, "You helped Big Joe, you helped Heather, you helped BamBam get off these streets, help me too!"

Unfortunately, I'm working in a landscape, where the norm screams of hopelessness and despair. Getting out of the deep ditch of homelessness and successfully moving into their own cribs should be simple, but their realities are just the opposite. The task of finding affordable and safe housing should be attainable and everyone's right, yet it remains an extremely complicated and confusing process, often wrapped tightly with too much "red tape"! Within this landscape, these chronically homeless men and women desperately seek a flicker of hope, knowing doors hardly ever open for them! They also know how these same doors can quickly close! Yet despite all this negativity: the good news is, doors are opening, miracles are happening and hope is being found, right here in good ol' Uptown!
Read the rest HERE.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A True Story about True Stories

I’ve been reading/feeding on HOW MUSIC WORKS by David Byrne. He is the kind of writer that has a lot to say about a smattering of everything music or musical. I have been telling my friends about one chapter in particular—How to Create a Scene, which deals with how to create a space for people to create.

We all know art centers that feel dead, while across town on the wrong side of the tracks all the cool people are hanging out and making it fresh, making it alive. They’re all broke and struggling yet there is a there there.

Suffice it to say one of his main points was that on the Lower East side in the Village around the Bowery in the early to mid-70s RENT WAS CHEAP. Yeah, affordable housing tends to draw the starving artist, creating clusters of young people fresh out of art school seriously trying to make it. Places like Wicker Park, Logan Square (used to be) are.

Anyway, reading Byrne reminded me of his film True Stories which for me was a real touchstone. My friends and everyone I knew could recite whole sections of the movie. A dropped reference was immediately caught. Quoting dialogue became shorthand, expressing stuff I/we were thinking about. It’s amazing how validated one can feel—we always knew the suburbs were stupid and ran screaming from the malls and here was someone, the unidentified cowboy in the LeBaron convertible telling us we were right.

My favorite character was the lying woman. Her personal narrative was full of all sorts of crazy. A lot like the log lady in Twin Peaks.

I remember watching True Stories in a roomful of people because a lot of us back in the early 80s still didn’t have our own TV. Watching True Stories was a communal experience and I can only remember through that communal filter—how we are laughed because we totally got it—people like us, who answer the phone. People like us, now middle-aged, graying, balding, slumping, back pain, sugar spikes, falling asleep in our chair GROWING AS BIG AS A HOUSE. We don’t want freedom, we don’t justice, we just need someone to love.

Thank you David Byrne for the fantastic insights delivered in True Stories.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

War on Poverty

I’ve written at this blog before about media saturation. Where even something as significant as the War on Poverty gets churned over and over into a sound byte.

Anyway, I listen to NPR in the morning and been hearing about the impact of this far-reaching legislation. At least that was how it was envisioned. I can tell you from my experience living in Uptown these past few years—it feels like a War on the Poor.

When I first came to Uptown it felt like a VERY DIFFERENT place. There was trash every where, people lived in their cars, vacant lots were full of trash. Every weekend a building burned. I and a number of other residents worked to improve the lives of the people around us. At times it seemed like a war, being surrounded by rubble and the wounds typical of those living in poverty. I remember one guy, a terrible junkie who would come by for our neighborhood feeding program. I remember thinking, He could be my brother. He was young and somewhat attractive—as if he’d come from “good people.” One week he showed up without one of his arms. I was shocked. On the streets things can go from fair to bad to really bad faster than you can say whoa or watch out!

That being said. Things have changed. Uptown is at the epicenter of a developer war—actually there is very little fighting. Not when public officials are giving kickbacks and public TIF money for prime real estate to be developed into luxury condominiums. The drawback to gentrification is that the area becomes homogenized; the newcomers once welcomed begin to squeeze out the elderly, those living on fixed incomes, folks in the margins of society.

The Lakeview Action Coalition, a neighborhood activist organization, estimates the North Side has lost nearly 2,000 affordable units in the past three years alone. Meanwhile demand for affordable housing has spiked. Simply put, policy is not meeting reality.” This from Uptown Uprising on Facebook which I follow.

As housing demand accelerates on Chicago’s North Side, another trend has emerged: Single-room occupancy units are being converted into upscale hotels and apartments, pushing out longtime low-income residents who have few other housing options. ONE Northside, an Uptown community-organizing group, estimates that 14 North Side buildings that once provided affordable housing to low-income people have been sold since 2011. That’s a net loss of around 2,205 affordable units, which are designed to cost low-income renters no more than 30 percent of their income.” This from The Chicago Reporter.

Affordable housing stock is under siege in Uptown. Current public officials would like to see the homeless shelters, Salvation Army feeding programs, and other social agencies disappear. Some days it really does feel like a battle—just to continue reaching out to the poor in Uptown.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

FREEZE FRAME goes on Sale at Amazon for $2 OFF

Freeze Frame: How to Write Flash Memoir is going to be on sale at Amazon Wednesday thru Saturday. CLICK here to go to the web page to download the book for only 99 cents.

Monday, January 6, 2014

So Cold It Feels Like the End of the World--If the World Were To End in Ice not Fire (see Robert Frost)

I’m still working on my New Year’s resolutions. Maybe by year’s end I’ll come up with a few.

Right now it’s about motivation, getting back into the writing/creating groove. Mostly I’d like 2014 to bring me health and wealth. I’d like for writing to become a career rather than an ambition.

Perhaps brain freeze has something to do with my current lethargy. It doesn’t exactly help that the windchill is a billion below zero. All major highways/arteries are shut down. Blowing and drifting.

I’m a morning cook. I make breakfast for 300 people—though today I knew it was going to be a bit slow as most people had the day off because of school/work closings. Normally the kitchen is cold when I come down, but after getting things turned on and the fan blowing it warms up. EXCEPT someone turned off the heat last night.

Why you might ask—I know I did. Why the hell would you turn off the heat on a night when it’s the end of the world according to the weather report.

The kitchen felt like end-times. Icicles hung like stalactites/mites from faucets/pipes. Most of the machines were too cold to work properly. Slowly I got things running, but about an hour later PSSST the pipes burst. I saw water spraying out of the riveted, stainless steel lined walls.

I quickly got the knobs down below the sinks turned off.

But that wasn’t the end of the problem. The pipes in the walls went next. Down in the basement it was as if the ceiling was draining. I grabbed a bunch of guys from the dining room and we chained food out of the pantry onto a high and dry area. We worked in ankle deep ice-cold water, the whole time new cracks opened up above our heads. Steam from burst hot water pipes steamed and hissed, rained down upon us. An odd contradiction of humidity and artic temperatures. It felt like a military operation with the enemy firing from the heights.

An hour later we had a sump pump going and the water turned off. Right now the plumbers are working on the pipes. On a Fuji scale of disaster my morning was a 5.

Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.